A Truly Radical Experience: One Student’s Reflection on an Undergraduate Research Program

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Editor’s Note: The Scholars-in-Residence Program, undertaken annually at University of Toronto’s Victoria College, is a fantastic research opportunity for undergraduate students in the social sciences. Combining the fascinating disciplines of natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences, the various projects aim to foster creativity and solutions to unique challenges the world is facing today. This article is the first of a series, edited by Asad Jessani, written by participants of SiR this past May.

During my time in the SiR program, I was working on a research project entitled “Liberating the LandCampus Foodscapes in the GTA” which was supervised by Dr. Eva-Lynn Jagoe, Dr. Michael Classens, and Dr. Nicole Spiegelaar. As someone interested in both environmental and social issues, I am drawn toward the area of food studies, with its focus on food insecurity and sustainability. Additionally, the project description mentioned “planting seeds and growing food” and “experiential learning.” University, at least in my experience, is deeply theoretical, and includes many (many) hours sitting in front of a computer. So, when I read that there was a chance for me to both develop new research skills and get outside, I knew I had to apply. 

On the first day of the program, after everyone’s nervous introductions, our professors admittedly told us that, though they had some set goals, they did not want to impose any concrete plans for the project. Instead, they valued our opinion and wanted the five of us to take the lead and develop something that parallels our skills, interests, and ideas. So, my colleagues, Amelia Collet, Diego Arreola Fernandez, Tamara Altarac, Jyotsna Kumar, and I quickly began brainstorming ideas. 

This was something I had not experienced. In both my work and academics, I was used to being given clear instructions, so it took time to get used to this non-hierarchical approach. In the end, my team developed a three-part research project. 

  1. Researching and writing an article on prefiguring equitable and sustainable food systems at university campuses. 
  2. Creating a new garden in front of Innis College consisting of pollinators, native plants, fruits, and vegetables.
  3.  Creating a proposal for a zero-waste café at UofT that would utilize surplus food from food services and produce from campus gardens.

Article on Prefiguration

Throughout our conversations, my team had many ideas about what would make campus food systems more sustainable and equitable. This led to our supervisors introducing us to the concept of “prefiguration,” which involves envisioning what you want the future world to be and acting in accordance with those visions and values. We decided to base our article around this concept, as it would allow us to discuss our multifaceted hopes about the future of our food system. At some point throughout the four weeks, we began referring to our article as a “why-to” guide, as it outlined all of the important reasons to strive for a better food system. 

Each group member had a different “vision” of an equitable and sustainable food system, which led us to each focus on a different aspect of prefiguration. I have always had a keen interest in the root of our food system: agriculture. As the majority of university campuses are located in urban areas, I realized that the importance of growing food in urban spaces is ever-increasing. I can’t give out too many spoilers, but other topics covered include food waste, food sovereignty, collective action, and youth activism. 

At the moment, our article is still in the working stages and is far from publication-ready. It is rather disjointed and lacks the flow and connection that we want. However, we have all continued working on it, and with the help of our supervisors, we hope to have it polished and completed soon. 

Figure 1: Researching and Writing our Article on Prefiguration

Innis College Garden

Of course, what is the sense in writing about urban agriculture without actually getting our hands dirty and creating a garden? Gardening was, by far, my favourite activity throughout the month. Putting together the planter boxes, filling them with soil, choosing what to plant, and watering it, was all so exciting. Using the knowledge that we learned from visiting other campus gardens, such as the UTSC Campus Farm and the TMU Rooftop Farm, along with seeds and seedlings donated from the Trinity Food Systems Lab, we created a truly wonderful space. We included a number of native and pollinator plants to support the growth of our produce and the ecosystems in the area at large. The garden is located at one of the busiest intersections on the UofT campus, so it will demonstrate to city dwellers that food can be grown directly in the heart of the city. 

Three students have since been hired to continue maintaining the garden throughout the rest of the summer. We plan to use the fruits, vegetables, and herbs from this garden in our zero-waste café that is set to open in fall 2023. 

Figure 2: Second Day of Gardening

Café Proposal

One morning, we were discussing what we could tangibly do to address food insecurity on campus. Creating a “why-to” guide was great first step, and growing fruit and vegetables on the University of Toronto campus would surely help students access healthy food. However, we wanted to do something that would help students access food on a larger scale. 

One of my colleagues, Tamara Altarac, is the founder of the UofT chapter of MealCare. She explained that Campus Food Services produces a lot of food waste. Because they never know how many students will come to dining halls on any given day, they almost always cook more than enough food. MealCare UofT then picks up the surplus food and delivers it to people who need it, both on campus and off. This sparked an idea: what if we streamlined some of this surplus food towards a free-lunch program that also incorporated locally grown produce? 

As we shared our café idea, we got connected with more people who were also advocating for similar programs at UofT. From the UofT Student Union (UTSU) to the sustainability office to graduate students to campus groups, everyone was eager to bring our idea to fruition. It was also important to us to move away from the traditional food charity model and instead operate a safe and welcoming space based on the concept of mutual aid and collectivity. “At our cafe, ‘free food’ is not an act of charity, it is a basic human right.”

After some more research, we realized that there was a previous initiative at UofT called Radical Roots, which had been operational for a number of years. We decided to try to re-establish Radical Roots by operating it as our café. 

Scholars-in-Residence has finished, but our work has not. We have continued with virtual meetings about our café and have continued filling out grant proposals to help with our start-up costs. The goal is to launch the café in fall 2023. For more information, follow us on Instagram @radicalrootsuoft!

Figure 3: Pitch at The 2023 Beatrice and Arthur Minden Symposium on the Environment. From Right to Left: Diego, Tamara, Amber, Amelia, Jyotsna. 


Throughout the four-week program, I experienced more growth as a researcher than at any other point in my academic career. Although I enjoy learning, and I am grateful to attend UofT, university classes are rarely ever “fun.” In my studies, I typically learn a lot of heavy content that is rather discouraging. Scholars-in-Residence, on the other hand, gave me the invaluable opportunity to connect with like-minded students, learn from brilliant professors, and contribute to something lasting—all while having a lot of fun and meeting many new friends. I know that when I complete my undergrad and look back at my time in university, my experience at SiR will stand out as a highlight. 

Figure 4: Final Research Colloquium Presentation
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Amber McNeil

Amber is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in the Specialist International Development Co-Op program. Previously, she was a research assistant for the Feeding City Lab and Sustainable Food and Farming Futures Cluster housed at UofT. Currently, she is living and working in Turrialba, Costa Rica on a Co-Op placement.

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