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Food in Sicily students experience how service changes people’s lives

Published: July 28, 2022 Author: Staff reports

Ohio University students studying abroad on the Italian island Sicily as a part of the Food in Sicily program experienced first-hand how service organizations combat some of society's biggest issues, such as: dangers posed to migrants, reintroduction to society from prison and food insecurity.

The volunteer and social activities in Food in Sicily — which ran from May 6-26 — all shared one thing in common: food. Students toured a farm that provides integration pathways for prisoners; volunteered to prepare meals at a local church kitchen; and toured ship operated by ResQ People Saving People, which saves endangered migrants as they cross the Mediterranean Sea.

“When I saw the ResQ boat docked in the port of Ortigia, I immediately rushed over,” said Theresa Moran, co-director of the Italy: Food in Sicily study away program and adjunct associate professor of instruction in Environmental and Plant Biology. “This is one of the vessels that goes out to rescue migrants in small boats and rafts who attempt the perilous journey from the Libyan coast across the Mediterranean, hoping to reach the European Union by getting to Italy. Many thousands drown on the way. Luckily, there was a crew member on deck, and I was able to arrange a visit for the students the following day.”

Students pose with RESQ ship volunteers in Sicily
Food in Sicily students aboard the ResQ People Saving People ship with two of the volunteers

ResQ was established in 2019 with one goal: protect life and human rights in the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2014, more than 20,000 men, women and children fleeing war, civil strife, famine and poverty have perished trying to cross from the open waters of the Mediterranean to European shores. The ResQ vessel is a 300-ton search and rescue ship with a crew of 20 people, which includes maritime professionals and specialized volunteers such as: doctors and nurses, rescuers, cultural mediators, a logistician and a cook. On board there is also a small medical clinic and separate accommodations for women and children.

Food in Sicily students toured the ship, met with the captain and volunteers and watched videos of the ship’s rescue missions. In the small galley kitchen, the students learned about the challenges of feeding the often desperately hungry survivors of diverse ages, religions and nationalities.

Since August 2021, the ship has saved more than 225 lives. The students left the ship with a deep appreciation for the harrowing humanitarian work that the crew and volunteers undertake.

Food in Sicily students and faculty holding Dolci Evasioni products with members of the social cooperative L’Arcolaio in the foreground.
Food in Sicily students and faculty holding Dolci Evasioni products with members of the social cooperative L’Arcolaio in the foreground.

Students visited the social enterprise cooperative L’Arcolaio. or the spinning wheel, which was founded in 2003 with the goal of creating social and employment integration pathways for prisoners to re-enter civil society following release from incarceration. At the facility in a nearby prison, L’Arcolaio staff guide the incarcerated in the production of traditional Sicilian food items using local, organic ingredients.

The social enterprise has expanded to include another facility on its farm property to assist other disadvantaged groups such as recently arrived migrants — especially women — while promoting a wider commitment to the area and environment by respecting and promoting the region and its traditions.

Food in Sicily students and faculty and cooperative member sampling the rosemary at L’Arcolaio’s growing facility in the Iblei Mountains. Lush Retail, Ltd, the British cosmetics giant, purchases L’Arcolaio’s rosemary harvest.
Food in Sicily students and faculty and cooperative member sampling the rosemary at L’Arcolaio’s growing facility in the Iblei Mountains. Lush Retail, Ltd, the British cosmetics giant, purchases L’Arcolaio’s rosemary harvest.

“In previous years we have visited their facility where they package their dessert products  — almond macaroons, chocolate covered candied fruit, roasted almonds, carob syrup, and many other products — which are made in the Cavadonna prison bakery,” Moran said. “These products are sold under the L’Arcolaio brand name Dolci Evasioni, which appropriately means sweet evasions or escapes. But this year, we visited their farm facility, where they have olive and almond groves and grow herbs like oregano, rosemary, lavender, thyme, sage, and wild fennel. It’s such a beautiful, wild part of the Iblei Mountains.”

Thanks to this social enterprise, dozens of prisoners and other disadvantaged people have been supported and, through their work, have been able to feel part of society again and gain a future of employment and dignity.

Helping in the kitchens of Caritas, from left: Sydnie KIlgour, Lauren Hayes, Jackie Augustine, Emily Jones and Emily McCarty
Helping in the kitchens of Caritas, from left: Sydnie Kilgour, Lauren Hayes, Jackie Augustine, Emily Jones and Emily McCarty

Finally, students got the chance to do their own service work by helping in the kitchens of Caritas in Ortigia, a small island off the coast of Sicily. In every iteration of the program since 2016, Food in Sicily students have been helping prepare meals for those in need at a local church kitchen near the students’ program accommodations. Caritas is an organization of the Catholic Church that serves the poor and promotes charity and justice. With the rise in migrants and the increasing numbers of food insecurity, volunteering to prepare meals for Caritas is one of the most popular ways that Sicilians serve their communities.

Students helped in the kitchens preparing food and making up food parcels. Pre-Covid, along with helping to chop and cook, students would also serve the needy at tables. Now, meals are packed with fresh fruit and bottled water and handed out by the volunteers.

"This service-learning work is an apt reminder for students and faculty that a world of need and suffering exists right next to our exciting world of study away,” Moran said. “It is essential to always remember this world of need and to strive to give back to it.”