Moments on tour

Growing food and futures: Service Learning in Thailand


A lot goes into a hard day’s work. But a whole lot more comes out of it during an EF Service Learning experience. When Group Leader Keeley L. arrived with her students at Wat Umeng School outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, they knew the details of the work they’d be doing on the project that awaited them. It wouldn’t be long until they fully understood the impact they’d have on the surrounding community.

As a part of the group’s Culture and Service in Thailand tour in the summer of 2023, Keeley and her students visited beautiful temples, experienced the bustling markets of Bangkok, and were awestruck at an elephant sanctuary. They also rolled up their sleeves and made a meaningful difference by contributing to the Food for Thought project, which helps establish local agriculture in Thailand.

Conor B., who runs the Food for Thought program, smiles as he talks about agriculture in Thailand.

Conor B. runs the Food for Thought with his brother Seamus through their family-run organization.

Work that makes a lasting impact

In the rural provinces surrounding Chiang Mai, smaller primary and middle schools frequently lack the resources to provide adequate meals for their students. As a result, class sizes often get smaller with each additional grade, depriving students of the opportunity to graduate from, or even get to, high school.

To help with this problem, Track of the Tiger 1986, a local family-run organization, created a simple but effective way to empower educators that hinges on an innovative approach to agriculture in Thailand. Through the Food for Thought project, volunteers visit schools in the area to build greenhouses, plant fruit trees, and more—in an effort to set up sustainable initiatives right on the grounds.

The goal is to give schools control over their food production and the power to reinvest in their own educational infrastructure. The project means a lot to Conor B., who was born and raised in Chiang Mai and now runs Track of the Tiger with his brother, Seamus.

“It’s a lofty goal, but we want to give these students more opportunity,” Conor says. “With EF coming in and helping us to ensure that there’s enough food in the schools, there’s a higher probability of these kids graduating and eventually going to university.”

At Wat Umeng School, Keeley’s group helped to refill a mushroom house, a small but mighty tool in fighting the problem faced by local schools. The shed-sized structures contain hundreds of bags of mushroom spores and provide more food than one school will need. Which is exactly the point. “The school will consume as they please and sell as they please, according to their needs,” explains Conor. They can sell extra produce to their communities and reinvest the profits back into the school, possibly by hiring additional teachers.

As part of their agriculture in Thailand project, Group Leader Keeley L. one one of her students work alongside a local student and show off dirty hands after a long day's work.

EF Group Leader Keeley L. and one of her student travelers work alongside a local student at Wat Umeng School to fill mushroom bags.

Conor and his team are always there to help schools or answer questions, but the ultimate goal is for the agricultural projects to become self-sustaining once they’re off the ground. It’s intense work, but he’s seen how collaborating with EF has amplified the impact of the project.

“EF is an ideal partner for us,” Conor says. “We’re very fortunate to have like-minded people who look for challenges to work through in the name of improvement and community development.”

Three small school children, standing outside Wat Umeng School, who will benefit from this agriculture in Thailand initiative.

Students from the Wat Umeng School.

Connecting with a new culture

Keeley’s group of high school students spent two full days at Wat Umeng School. There was plenty to keep them busy, between mixing, filling, and sealing bags of spores for a mushroom house restock and clearing out an overgrown greenhouse.

But there was also time to make connections with the local students at the school. Between classes, the Thai middle-schoolers would sit side by side with EF travelers to help with the bags, and everyone was able to gather for lunch. As the day of work wound down, Keeley’s group even had the chance to sit in on an after-school music lesson.

For the local Thai students, interacting with American students is an added benefit of the Food for Thought project. “The children are excited to meet foreigners,” says Piyanan B., the school’s principal. “They’re excited and eager to do activities with the volunteers.” Even with a language barrier, it turns out high fives and big smiles always translate.

My students were deeply impacted knowing they did something sustainable for the school—that the work they performed will help the children for months and hopefully years to come.

Keeley L., EF Group Leader, PA

EF travelers help establish new agriculture in Thailand by filling mushroom bags (left) and renovating a greenhouse (right).

Keeley's group of EF travelers helped to refill a mushroom house and clear out an overgrown greenhouse.

Lessons that last a lifetime

The work done by Keeley’s students to establish new agriculture in Thailand will impact many school children in the villages surrounding Wat Umeng School and bear fruit for years to come. Through their experience, they also learned lessons that will shape their own futures long after they return home.

During the service project, Eric P., a chaperone who teaches alongside Keeley, noticed his students were discovering how to better work together on the fly. With a lot of tasks to do in a small amount of time, he saw the group ramping up their problem-solving skills in a real-world scenario.

“They learn a little more about how they work,” says Eric. “How they function, how they collaborate, and how they process information. Being involved on the ground level, it’s really valuable.”

Every EF Service Learning experience looks a little different. But they all share the same core principles. Just like during the Food for Thought project, students will work together and alongside locals to challenge themselves and make meaningful, sustainable contributions that will be felt by communities long after our travelers return home.

Two EF travelers carry a heavy bag of soil as part of their Service Learning tour, where they worked on agriculture in Thailand.

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Jake Minton

Jake is a copywriter at EF. His bucket list includes (but is by no means limited to) snowboarding in Japan, exploring the streets of Nairobi, and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.