How might we educate and empower college students living off-campus for the first time to make healthy eating choices?
In the latest installment of Operation C.H.O.W.D.O.W.N., an ongoing effort between me, Nicole Dee, Brianna Fill, and Sherill Choong to create a strategic design plan to help people make healthier food choices: we’ve completely reconstructed the focus of our research to target college students living off-campus for the first time. Our original research focus, the broader population of low-income families in Northwest Arkansas, survived all of two days before it got the axe. For some insight into why this happened before the project even got off the ground, we can turn to the intended topic of this blog — ethnography.
Ethnography is active listening turned up to twelve. That’s right. Leave your head-nodding and your “that sucks” at home, folks. It’s time to get our hands dirty. 
American anthropologist Clifford Geertz didn’t play games. He knew that in order to intimately understand a group of people, their culture, and the nuances of their daily lives, you’ve gotta live it right along side them. In the 1950s, Geertz went to Bali, a province of Indonesia, and gambled on cockfights to get into the thick of things with the commoners. When the police arrived to break up that illegal activity, Geertz fled and hid from the cops in a local couple’s courtyard — right alongside the subjects of his research. In that moment, researcher and subject were one and the same. Establishing trust and camaraderie allowed him to get to the heart of what he sought to know about the Balinese.
That is, in essence, what we must do to fully understand what those who don’t have time to eat properly really need, and what we can do to alleviate their problems. Food is deceptively complicated and intimately related to economics and geography (as we found out in the beginning stages of our research). Though we’d certainly like to help low-income families eat better, we concluded that their problems are, unfortunately, unsolvable so long as their economic conditions remain poor. Economic disparity is a pretty difficult issue to take on if you’re four design students who don’t know what you’re doing.
Instead, we’ll be tackling issues of nutrition among our own kind: college students living off-campus. This population faces similar problems, even if they aren’t quite as dire. With limited money, limited time, and limited know-how, a lot of college students struggle to feed themselves well when they first adjust to living on their own without the aid of parents or dining halls. 
To best evaluate possible solutions, we’ll be channeling our inner young slobs — or, as a professional would put it, performing a design ethnography on off-campus students — in the coming weeks.
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