Water in the Desert

Justyna Jalosinski did what was expected of her - until a research opportunity challenged her to do more

Amie Filkow - 07 January 2016

As a freshman University of Alberta student, Justyna Jalosinski was underwhelmed by school. She got decent grades and checked off the requirements for a major in business retailing. But she didn't feel inspired.

At least, not until a few semesters before graduation.

Jalosinski discovered a community service learning course on food sustainability. With her studies in business, she was interested in the role of supermarkets in society. What happens to a community when a grocery store packs up and leaves? Where do residents go to buy food? For her final project in the course, Jalosinski mapped "food deserts" in Edmonton - neighbourhoods located more than a kilometre (walking distance) from a grocery store. For less-mobile, vulnerable groups such as seniors and single-parent families, even a kilometre can be a barrier to affordable, nutritious food. Without access to a vehicle, people living in a food desert often rely on processed fast food and convenience stores, increasing their odds of developing obesity and chronic disease.

Once Jalosinski got out of the classroom and met people affected by food deserts, she realized just how great an impact her research could have. One man at a seniors residence had set up a mini grocery store inside his apartment, selling food to his neighbours at a marked-up cost. Fellow residents paid for the items willingly, and why not? When the alternative is a dangerous trek along icy winter sidewalks while juggling grocery bags and a cane, it makes sense to forgo fresh produce and pay double for a can of soup. But many of these seniors were not getting the nutrition they needed.

Jalosinski's initial research planted a seed. She began to read widely about sustainability movements around the world, as well as government policies on hunger and economics. "I quickly began to see how my research findings were symptoms of a much larger global problem," she says. As the external impact of her research became clear, she realized people cared about her ideas and that her actions mattered to the world. As indifference gave way to inspiration, Jalosinski felt valued and motivated to do more.

Suddenly, the student who had merely been going through the motions wanted to do as much research as possible before she graduated. She applied for and was awarded a $5,000 stipend from the Undergraduate Research Initiative, a UAlberta program that exposes undergraduate students to research opportunities, connects them to faculty mentors and funds their individual and collaborative projects. Connie Varnhagen, academic director of the program, says a URI stipend provides more than just a paycheque: "It changes the way students view research and makes it accessible to them."

Researching gave Jalosinski the opportunity to apply in-class theory to a practical situation. She worked in a team, thought creatively to figure out real problems and was in charge of her own progress. Rather than just absorbing knowledge,
she was creating her own. "It's amazing what I learned by doing research," she says.

Jalosinski's research also caught the attention of Hani Quan, planner and director of Fresh, the City of Edmonton's food and urban agriculture strategy. "Students are in a unique space - they can ask questions other people aren't asking," says Quan, who provided Jalosinski with municipal geographic information system data early in her project, hoping that her research would help reveal gaps in access to fresh food within the city.

While Jalosinski has since graduated, master's student Haoluan Wang is pushing the project forward, looking at the impact of community gardens and farmers markets on food deserts. The results - which show that farmers markets do not necessarily solve the problem - are now informing the direction of Fresh and other City of Edmonton sustainability initiatives aimed at shaping the future of food and urban agriculture in the city.

Looking back, Jalosinski is astonished at how much undergraduate research transformed her whole university experience. "I realized that I have the power to push things forward. I have the power to make a difference."