Food Justice Programs Popping Up Like Mushrooms

Marilee Turscak

Prior to enrolling in my first semester at college, I took a food-focused College Writing II class online through The King’s College. It was a broad-themed course that inspired passionate discussions among students about sustainability, nutrition, famine, treatment of animals, cooking, and locavorism. We read The Supper of the Lamb, a thoughtful, funny, recipe-infused culinary reflection written by Anglican priest and food-enthusiast Robert Capon, as well as essays by such notable food writers as Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan.

For our final project, we were asked to write a 20-30 page research paper on a food theme. Subjects ranged from papers on the ethics of corn syrup manufacturing, to descriptions of food in C.S. Lewis and Tolkien books, to the Ukrainian Holodomor famine, to racial discrimination in restaurants, to the science of chocolate.

Many of the topics resonated with the class on a personal level, and we had pleasant discussions about eating etiquette and favorite cuisines in our hometowns. Whether we grew up in cities or in farmlands, we could all gather around the cyber-table and share our thoughts on food. Despite the fact that this was an online course, several of my classmates and I have remained in touch years later.

When I enrolled in the class, I thought that the topic was unique to my particular college (and indeed, the professor certainly incorporated fresh new materials and moderated the class with passion and creativity). Upon doing more research, however, I have realized that food-related courses are ubiquitous in academe.

At college campuses throughout the country, food studies programs and events have been popping up like mushrooms.

Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling, award-winning, and commonly-assigned Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes on his website that “there are a growing number of food studies programs in university programs from Indiana to Italy.”

Of these, he lists the following:

NYU’s Steinhardt Department of Food, Nutrition and Public Health, where Marion Nestle is a professor, has both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Indiana University offers a PhD track in Food Studies within the Anthropology Department

Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment

Chatham University’s Master of Arts in Food Studies

The University of Gastronomic Sciences, founded in 2004 by the international non-profit Slow Food, offers graduate degrees in gastronomic studies, food studies and tourism.

Boston University, Metropolitan College’s offers a Masters of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy

The University of New Hampshire has a dual major in EcoGastronomy

UC Davis’s Humanities Institute hosts a multi-campus research program on Studies of Food and the Body, UC Davis also has a food concentration within the American Studies Department

Tufts University offers a Masters in Agriculture, Food and Environment

The focus of these programs differs greatly depending on the individual college. At Indiana University, for instance, the PhD food studies concentration directs students toward choosing one of four anthropological subfields (Archeology, Social/Cultural, Linguistics, Bioanthropology) with the Anthropology of Food constituting an minor within each subfield. The website lists over 40 possible courses with titles such as “Money, Sex, and Cooking,” “The Memory of the Palate: Food, Religion, and Identity,” “Paleonutrition,” “Local Food and Sustainability in Global Context,” and “American Indian Subsistence.”

NYU’s food studies concentration, however, is much narrower. The website states that the program’s core courses “focus on critical thinking and writing about food, for those interested in careers in teaching, food writing and cookbook development.” Notable alumni have become chefs and food education instructors.

In addition to food-themed study programs, several colleges specifically promote “food justice.”

For instance, Occidental College’s Center for Food and Food Justice hosts an annual Food Justice Month in October, Gettysburg College provides a week-long Food Justice in Adams County program, Macalester College has an on-campus Food Justice duplex, the University of Pittsburgh Honors College offers an online Hunger and Food Justice resource guide, and Berkeley has its own Food Institute that aims to “catalyze and support transformative change in food systems, to promote diversity, justice, resilience, and health, from the local to the global.”

These are just a few examples of the explosion of the food movement in higher education.

An implied sentiment behind many of these initiatives is the need to combat a perceived injustice. At the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, the course “The Politics of Gender and Food” explores how food is “a means of expressing the social and symbolic use of power and control in which social inequalities are expressed in culinary forms.” At Hamilton College, similarly, the course Women, Gender, and the Politics of Food discusses how “notions of family, community, and cultural practices connected to food are differentiated by race, class, ethnicity, and nationality.”

While these institutions all share a general desire to promote “food justice,” definitions for this term are remarkably broad. Seattle’s Community Alliance for Global Justice defines food justice as “the right of communities everywhere to produce, distribute, access, and eat good food regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, religion, or community.”

Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment echoes the idea that a food scholar should strive to combat injustice. The website estimates that a hundred million people can be pushed below the poverty line with food price increases, adding to one billion people who already live in chronic hunger. The way to fight this injustice is to “inform both short-term and long-term interventions that could stabilize price levels.”

In Food Justice (Food, Justice, and the Environment) (MIT Press, 2010), author and Occidental College professor of Urban and Environmental studies Robert Gottlieb writes the following about the difficulty of defining the movement:

The biggest challenge we found was the uncertainty about how to translate food justice’s increased visibility and the proliferation of interest and activism and the excitement it has generated into the development of a coherent social movement and force for social change. In some ways, food justice has become a way to express discontent about the food system and the desire for change, without necessarily providing a clearly defined agenda for how to bring about that change.

Sometimes the aims of the food justice movement appear so unclear that it is impossible to discern its proponents’ intentions. Perhaps the relative newness of the movement accounts for the broadness of its scope.

Gottlieb traces the movement to 1994, when the Community Food Security Coalition hosted its first meeting. In 1996, the federal Farm Bill, which provided participating producers with fixed government payments independent of farm prices and production, became the occasion for the initial work of the CFSC. In that same year, the organization produced a document called “The Community Food Empowerment Act” which aimed to use the Farm Bill deliberations to bring about greater policy change and “inspire a new type of food movement.” Gottlieb says that these efforts led to the passage of the Community Food Projects legislation within the Farm Bill, which became “a crucial source of support for the new food justice-oriented work beginning to emerge around the country.”

It is unclear what exactly inspired such a massive movement—perhaps it was simply a response to the changing economy; perhaps it was a way to help farmers experiencing financial difficulties after a downturn in grain exports in the 1980s or a crop shortfall in the 1990s; or perhaps it was simply a unexplainable phenomenon that captured the world’s attention in a manner similar to Pokémon, Beanie Babies, or hipster glasses.

Whatever the case, institutions of higher learning have ever since been sowing curricular seeds and cultivating gardens of young food activists.

Because different institutions have varying goals, it is unclear whether these groups accomplish anything tangible. Like many popular movements, the food justice movement delivers an impassioned cry for change, but rarely do proponents of this movement offer a plan for how to implement that change (and much less do they offer a clear depiction of the sort of wrongdoing which they hope to end).  

In the magazine Radical Teacher an article by three professors of English, “Radical Teaching and the Food Justice Movement,” suggests that food activists and political food actors (people who make food policy decisions) communicate in order to change a culture where “McDonald’s cheeseburgers are cheaper than apples.”

While the food justice trend may have the positive effect of promoting thoughtful discussions about health, nutrition, and service toward those in need, it might also promote thoughtless activism and disdain toward unidentified oppressors.

Food justice could be about endless subjects—relocalizing the way we grow and produce food; fighting against corporate power in different industries; struggling against class disparities, hunger, and malnutrition; exploitation of food laborer; factory farming and treatment of animals; health and diet; or a combination of all these things and more.

In my own experiences taking classes and attending lectures on food, I have found that the broadness of the topic provides a great springboard for interesting conversations about all aspects of culture. The food movement, commendably, inspires such discussions. The task, then, for the conscientious foodie is to sort through the vast cornfield of information to find the kernels of truth and value in the midst.

Image: "Mushrooms" by Steve Fuerst // CC BY-SA

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