Goshen College may be known for many things, but one thing that needs more attention from students are the Sustainability Potlucks.

About three years ago, a film featuring Elkhart County’s food system was shown on campus and the faculty organized a potluck for that event. Eventually, those involved in this initial event realized a potluck would be a great way for students to connect, talk, and learn about sustainability, food systems, and issues concerning the community and agriculture.

Every year the group of people involved in the sustainability potlucks keeps growing. One person who has been there since the very beginning is Jon Zirkle, sustainable food systems educator and farm manager at Merry Lea.

Zirkle has a strong background knowledge of sustainability and food systems, and he is very aware that many students may still not be completely sure what sustainability is, which is why he encourages people to have valuable discussions about it.

“I am aware that even at these potlucks… there are a number of students who aren’t really sure what we mean by sustainability,” he said. “The term is used a lot but it’s not defined well and I don’t think there is a clear definition out there… but having a working definition is pretty profound.”

The name says it all, “Sustainability Potlucks,” but Zirkle believes students and younger generations can find even more ways to learn about sustainability and make an impact.

“We need to be part of the equation when we talk about sustainability,” he said. “I think being civically engaged even at the local level is important…  but decisions are being made all the time. It’s more empowering [to act] than [to just see] things happening to your community and reacting all the time.”

The sustainability potlucks are a starting point to having valuable discussions about sustainability, but Zirkle sees an even bigger potential in students and hopes they use this initiative for encouragement.

“I think students may not realize how much power they have,” he said. “Civil leaders listen… I think sometimes when young people come to meetings, voice their opinions, protest, or write letters it speaks volumes to some [people].”

Zirkle is unsure what the future holds for the sustainability potlucks, but so far he has witnessed new friendships being formed. He thinks it is mostly up to the students to decide what’s next.

“I hope to see [the potlucks] become a regular way to connect,” he said. “I think that students are really meeting outside of the potlucks… a lot of them have become friends in new ways, some of them are in the same classes together, or through the potlucks they’ve realized they share similar values.”

He strongly encourages other students to give the sustainability potlucks a try because they can learn from other people their same age.

“I think it’s refreshing that it’s not a class and [that] it’s not required. [You get] a meal and you might learn some cooking ideas. Learning… from a fellow student your age might be a [bigger] wow moment than learning it somewhere else,” Zirkle said.

The GC sustainability potlucks are a great initiative to building a more conscious and informed community. Zirkle is very passionate about making a positive impact, even if it is just at the local level. He hopes others realize how important it is to help and invest in the local community.

“The way we shop [and] the things we buy have more of an impact than people realize… shopping at local businesses buying food directly [from them] is something I am passionate about, [it] keeps dollars circulating in the community,” he said. “The power of our dollars really start to shape our community if you think intentionally where we spend our money.”

Many GC students are working to make a difference in one way or another and he wants them not to forget about one thing:

“I think it’s really important for people of all ages to learn the balance between caring for yourself and caring for others. We can be really black and white about that.. And that really feeds into sustainability… Giving yourself the space to really think about both aspects of being alive is important.”