Thursday, 7 February 2013

FCC: Food and Campus Food Culture

Well, folks, a countdown in my world has begun: with the conclusion of yesterday's Food and Culture Colloquium module, we have only 9 more sessions to go. Eish, in those terms, this semester is seriously going to fly by quickly! This week, we welcomed Carmen Black and Alex Frantz, Midwest Field Organizers of the Real Food Challenge (RFC), and reflected on our shifting notions of what it means to be part of food-based movements, particularly from the angle of the residential campus experience.

Before we got to talking about shifts in our collective campus food culture, I began by asking us to consider shifts in our individual food identity, which I framed in this more or less cut, pasted and edited form:

Throughout the past two years, and especially within the last 14 modules of our Food and Culture Colloquium, I’d like to think there’s been a distinct shift in the way we approach, look and talk about food on Denison’s campus. And by virtue of the fact that we as a foodie community gathered here today and throughout the past five or so months, we have begun to create a system in which the wide arena of food can be explored and expressed. Having said this, I don’t mean to suggest that I or any of the food and culture programs coming from our office is responsible for any of this change, but rather I would like to recognise the fact that there is a growing number of identifiable members of the foodie community whose efforts and commitment to food—whether it be through its politics, process, consumption, culture or some combination thereof and much more—are clear.

I invite us to think back to module 2 when we were introduced to Slow Food Columbus and People Endorsing Agricultural Sustainability. And within that context, I’d like to refer to the description of Slow Food International as shared in the book Come to the Table: The Slow Food Way of Living which reads that it is: “a nonprofit, ecogastronomic, member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life; the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes; and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”
Our colloquium and indeed much if not all of the food-related programs, events, organisations on campus are not quote on quote “Slow Food”-sponsored or certified as being such. But in retrospect, a large focus of our colloquium aims at the second goal of seeking to counteract the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how it tastes. As we’ve already done, and as we’ll continue to do the rest of the semester, we will be looking at the food traditions of other regions of the world, including the United States. But what about that first part? How local have we gotten and how local can we get?

I’d like us to first think of how our own conceptions of food and culture have shifted since we first stepped foot on Denison’s campus. Depending on which programs or presentations of mine you’ve heard in the past, or even whether or not you’ve heard me talk about food, I would like to offer a brief discussion of an aspect of identity that runs throughout all of my programming and research, that of “food identity.” Currently, I have yet to find a widely accepted, let alone a suggested, definition of "food identity." And so I’ll propose one that continues to develop for me. In contrast to food identity as situated within the Food Identity Erasmus Mundus Program which literally looks at the identity of food, my concept of food identity is that which is related to the identity of the individual, society and culture at-large, embodying the heritage (past, present and future) and environmental influences and conditions which shape such an identity, as expressed and experienced through food.

As Robin Fox, professor of social theory at Rutgers and founder of the Department of Anthropology in 1967, suggests in his article “Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective,” “since everyone must eat, what we eat becomes a most powerful symbol of who we are. […] There are many kinds of food identification[… t]he obvious ones are ethnic, religious and class identifications. Ethnic food preferences become identity markers in the presence of gustatory “foreigners,” such as when one goes abroad, or when the foreigners visit the home shores.” In addition, “Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. [...] All animals eat, but we are the only animal that cooks. So cooking becomes more than a necessity, it is the symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature.”

But, situated within a collegiate dining experience, then, what does it mean for my, your, our identity when we eat on the Hill? If it is true when Fox writes that we eat what we are (or rather “you eat what you are”) what does that mean? Indeed, it must be true to an extent so much so that in 1826, French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin declared: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”! (“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”)

At the National Association for Ethnic Studies annual conference this past April, I presented some food data I collected and summarised based on last year’s food and culture programming, which in itself was situated within the framework of Professors Maria Lowe and Reginald Byron of Southwestern University. I continue to build upon this data given this year’s Colloquium for an updated presentation I will be giving at the Eastern Sociological Society’s Mini Conference on Food Studies next month. Three common themes that have emerged seem to suggest that undergraduate food culture is one of convenience; there's a social stigma in favor of group dining, the motivations of which may conflict with one's notion of race relations as suggested by Lowe and Byron; and there are too many variables which discourage the cooking experience (which I would emphasise competes with Fox's declaration that cooking is a human necessity).

Upon reflection then, and given all of the information I shared, I asked folks to divide into smaller groups and discuss the following questions:
  1. In this present moment, how would you describe what and how you ate before coming to Denison, whenever “before” was?Since your arrival on campus, what and how do you eat? What factors—if any (and I’m sure there are)—have contributed to your responses?
  2. To what extent have you “lost” your food identity/culture (economic, geographic or otherwise)?
  3. To what extent have you “found” or perhaps “reinvented” your food identity/culture?
  4. To what extent is the summary I’ve just shared a reflection of your experience?

As the small groups ended their discussions based on the aforementioned prompts, we transitioned over to Carmen and Alex's presentation which first introduced to RFC's working definition of "real food".

Surprisingly (at least to me), about 70% of colleges and universities outsource their dining options (as opposed to self-operating), with three major companies--Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group--yielding 92% of the total revenue, an amount equivalent to a staggering $50B+. Without question, the economic (as well as the social and political) impact of food within the American education system is too large to ignore and yet is only a part of an even larger food system. Speaking of which, what do you think of when you hear or see the phrase "food system"? Summarised, this was the question Carmen and Alex put before us. This exercise, as has been the case with all of the other audiences Carmen has previously addressed, yielded a generally negative connotation: "corn, cows, capitalism," "industrial farming," "assembly line," "worried." ("Aquaponics" was our one saving grace.) And yet, we're a part of this food system whether or not we like it.

But who says we don't have to like our food system? As shown above, Carmen and Alex ended their presentation with an optimistic (arguably idealistic, but can't it be realistic?) Food Wheel that depicts the many components of what Real Food is all about. Divided into 13 smaller categories, the hope would be that something relative to the experience of participants within the food system (producers, consumers, communities and the earth) is inspiring enough to get involved and become a part of positive change, to be part of yielding "food that truly nourishes."

Suggested readings for this session:
"Fostering Campus Food Culture" (Katharine Millonzi, 2011)
“Among Dorms and Dining Halls, Hidden Hunger” (Katie Robbins, 2010)
“Food Insecurity on College Campuses” (Robin Shreeves, 2010)

To learn more about the Real Food Challenge and/or to get involved, click here. For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here

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