By Noah Zerbe
From Kindergarten through University, food provides a powerful way to help our students understand and find their place in the world. Food touches on nearly every subject, from science and physical education to history and social studies. Because it is deeply imbued with cultural meaning and closely tied to our physical survival, it can provide a deeply personal way for students to connect with the material. In short, using food to make sense of other subjects can be both fun and informative.
Introducing Food Studies
At the primary school level, garden days can expose students to fruits and vegetables that they may not encounter at home. At the most basic level, these can be introducing food items ranging from artichokes to zucchini to students. Many may be novel, and the opportunity to taste new foods (where appropriate) can be exciting. At the same time, students can be asked to think about the biology of the plant (fruit or vegetable, root vegetable or not, etc.). Culture and tradition can also be explored foods that are more common to different regions or traditions around the world.
Some schools may also have a school garden or farm-to-school program. These can provide students the opportunity to see where their food comes from--an opportunity many students have never had. And the garden itself can make a good space to explore topics in science ranging from the obvious (What is the lifecycle of a plant? What is the web of life?) to basic math and geometry (How far to plant seeds apart? How much space does a plant need?) to health and wellness (What is a balanced diet? Why is good nutrition important?).
The Next Steps
As students advance in their studies, the scope of topics opened by food becomes wider. At the secondary level, social studies topics like history, economics, and government can be added to the mix. Most of the popular literature on food included in the bibliography below is accessible to high school students. At both the high school and university level, numerous themes emerge.
Globalization and Global Interconnectedness. The idea of seasonality has been lost as a result of the globalization of farming made possible by new plant varieties and refrigerated shipping. What has been lost culturally as a result? What are the implications of the emergence of global food markets which make cheap food available year round in the global north while pricing food out of reach of many of the world’s poorest in the global south?
Agriculture and Farming Systems. Are our food systems just? What ethical obligations, if any, do we have for the animals we raise for food? Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? What about pesticides? What does the corporate consolidation of our global food system mean for consumers?
Alternative Food Movements. How do alternative food movements, including local food movements (which encompasses community supported agriculture, farm-to-school, school gardens, and farmers’ markets) and the slow food movement challenge and transform the global food system? Should we re-introduce seasonality into our diets? Why?
Public Policy Debates. Are biofuels and food competitive? Should we encourage greater production of ethanol? Do domestic food programs help prevent hunger? Do we have an obligation to help those who can’t afford enough food to survive? Do international food aid programs work? How does our farming system connect with current debates over immigration and border control? Are small farmers able to earn a living? Is our food supply safe?
For Further Reading
The Association for the Study of Food and Society maintains a database of course syllabi that is restricted to its members. Similarly, the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society offers a number of resources for those interested in teaching food-related topics. An internet search yields dozens of courses focused on food taught across the United States and around the world.
The literature on food grows too quickly to keep up. Histories of specific foods and food commodities can be used to highlight broad political, economic, cultural, and social trends. Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (focused on sugar) set the stage for these sorts of studies and is accessible to high school and college level audiences. Many others have followed suit, including Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, Dan Koeppel’s Banana, Jack Turner’s Spice, William Rubel’s Bread,
Broader social analyses of food could also begin with Michael Pollan’s impressive body of work. His most well-known works include The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire (which was also a film), and In Defense of Food, in which he shares the sage advice, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
For those more interested in historical or cultural approaches, Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity and his A History of the World in Six Glasses are both good starting points. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork is also quite engaging.
Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved provides a fascinating analysis of a global food system that creates one billion hungry people around the world at the same time one billion people suffer from obesity.
Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation started as a series in Rolling Stone magazine and was later expanded into a book and adapted into a movie. It provides a fascinating analysis of the rise, expansion, and implications of the rise of fast food in the United States. It is surprisingly accessible and has even been adapted into for younger readers, titled Chew on This.
And finally, no one is better on food politics and policy than Marion Nestle, whose Food Politics and What to Eat are both indispensable.
In addition to the growing number of films dealing with the topic of food, National Public Radio now produces a regular series titled The Salt which makes for great listening.
The Food and Agriculture Organization has a manual for Setting Up and Running a School Garden Program. The University of California, Davis, offers a similar manual. County agricultural extension offices and local groups like the 4-H Club and master gardener programs may also be willing to assist. Finally, some funding may be available through US Department of Education