Using the Jesuit mission to teach about food insecurity in America

Terre Ryan, Ph.D., associate professor of writing, weaves her passion for the environment into her writing courses
Terre Ryan smiling for the camera in front of green plants

Terre Ryan, Ph.D., associate professor of writing, has been awarded numerous research grants to study American wartime food security programs in the United States—including her most recent award at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

During the summer of 2012, she was awarded a research grant from Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. In 2013, Ryan conducted a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, also in the District. During her research in the nation’s capital, Ryan studied wartime food gardens and the transition of gardens on the White House lawn. She went on to publish two pieces about gardens at the White House and has continued her work on wartime food gardening.

Ryan, who has taught at Loyola since 2011, earned an MBA from Baruch College, her Master of Arts in Creative Writing from City College of New York, a Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Montana, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nevada, Reno. Loyola magazine recently spoke with her about how she combines her love for the environment by asking her students to write about food insecurities, global warming, and sustainability.

How did you start researching gardens and teaching writing courses at Loyola?

I’m both a writer and scholar, and I was hired by Loyola for my work in environmental writing. I’m particularly focused on environmental justice, and food justice is a component of that. I’m very interested in food justice and food insecurity, where people don’t have sufficient access to food, especially healthy food. In terms of food justice, I have incorporated into my courses questions about who eats what, and what food choices are accessible to them. Today there is a lot of talk about where our food comes from, but in my teaching, I’m focused on what kinds of foods people have access to.

Explain your latest research grant with the Truman Library Institute. What is the goal of your research?

The Harry S. Truman Library is a presidential library, so it’s part of the National Archives and Records Administration. The Truman Library Institute is a nonprofit partner that manages funding, and the grant will cover my transportation and housing while I’m at the Truman Library in Missouri. I’ll spend a week there doing research on U.S. food security programs both during and after World War II.

My goal is to write a series of articles on American wartime and postwar food gardening programs, and my research has a way of working into my courses. I’ve been researching American wartime food gardens for years. During World War I, they were called war gardens; after Armistice, they were called victory gardens. The idea was that people would grow their own food at home or in community gardens so that resources like food and energy could be diverted to critical wartime needs. These were our first local food movements, and our government promoted food gardening as patriotic.

What inspires you to conduct this research?

I find gardens interesting. They are very political spaces. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am reading in many different fields, and I find myself moved by the research I am conducting on gardens of the past and present. My research has given me a deeper appreciation for what people went through in the past and the food insecurities people deal with now. Global food insecurity is a growing issue, and I think it’s important to be innovative in the ways we learn about and help others have access to affordable and easily accessible food.

How does your research about the environment and gardens benefit your students?

I teach courses in Writing about the Environment (WR354) and Writing about Science (WR301), so my research on environmental writing informs what I include in each course.

Since I care deeply about food justice, I’ve often incorporated a lot of food justice readings into my Effective Writing (WR100) courses. In the past, I have given students in my Effective Writing course the option to partner with CARES Food Pantry to learn about what people are eating and how inequality in Baltimore impacts food access. I’ve also donated and encourage donations to VIVA House. During the school year, I also participate in the Loaves & Fishes program, which prepares and delivers meals to people in Baltimore who are experiencing homelessness. The program was started by a concerned citizen, and Campus Ministry coordinates Loyola’s participation.

In spring 2020, I will launch a course with a service-learning option: Writing about Food (WR385). While we’ll look at several different forms of food writing, the course will have a strong food justice component. My goal is to have two community partners who are based on the York Road Corridor; if I can secure funding, I’ll invite a guest speaker.

How does Loyola’s mission speak to your work?

I fully embrace it. After I completed graduate school, I started working at Fordham University and fell in love with the Jesuit mission. Jesuit teaching is grounded in justice and thinking about others. It creates an awareness of the world and our responsibility to care for people who are less fortunate. When I think about cura personalis, I think about how you have to broaden it and try to care for the entire community, including the environment. As Pope Francis writes, the earth is “our common home.”

Do you have your own garden?

I wish! Because I’ve always lived in urban rentals, I’ve never had my own garden, and community gardens haven’t been located close to the places I’ve lived. However, I just started a small container garden of milkweed and black-eyed Susans—native plants that Elizabeth Dahl, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, grew from seed. I’m thrilled with my little pollinator garden, and I plan to expand it.