Advancing Critical Food Systems Education through Service Learning

David Meek, Author

David Meek, Author

In anthropology departments across the country, food systems courses are becoming increasingly prevalent. Their rapid growth makes sense, because there is significant overlap between the study of food systems and traditional areas of anthropological inquiry, such as food security, the anthropology of nutrition, and ethnobotany. Yet, despite anthropologists’ attention to cultural politics, food systems education is still open to the same long-standing critiques of the alternative food movement. As critical food scholars point out, the alternative food movement is characterized by an “unbearable whiteness,” where its agrarian ideals, such as the importance of “getting your hands dirty,” reflect whitened cultural histories and ultimately produce racialized spaces of social exclusion.  Anthropologists are increasingly seeking to address these apprehensions by integrating critical perspectives into their food system pedagogies. In this commentary, I discuss an alternate pedagogical framework, known as critical food systems education (CFSE), through which anthropologists can potentially redress these concerns.

CFSE is at once a theoretical perspective, set of pedagogies, and vision for policy (Meek and Tarlau 2015, 2016). By drawing upon this perspective, we are called to critically reflect on what kind of community projects our courses are supporting. Are these projects similar to many in the alternative food movement that are motivated by an honest desire to “bring good food to others,” but end up reproducing racialized conceptions of communities of color as defined by poor food choices? Or do they seek to help develop students who have the mobilizing skills and critical consciousness needed to transform the food system? In redesigning my own courses, I’m striving to connect classroom pedagogy with the actual movements that are attempting to transform the food system.

The first time I taught a course I developed called “The Politics of Food Sovereignty and Society” in a traditional setting, it was at times disappointing. The discussions were lively, but student evaluations highlighted their desire to get out into the community and connect critical theory with praxis. I committed to transforming this course and applied to the University of Alabama Faculty Fellows in Service Learning Program to gain specialized training and for a Learning in Action grant to carry out this change. In redesigning the course around CFSE, I started with what community members identified as the pressing needs of marginalized groups. I developed a partnership with the Sand Mountain Seed Bank (SMSB) in Albertville, Alabama, which is trying to preserve heirloom seed varieties throughout the Southeast. The SMSB was just beginning the process of creating a digital inventory of its seed stock. My students spent approximately fifty hours entering seed records into the online database, helping the SMSB move towards its goal of making the seed library publicly accessible.

One of critical food systems education distinguishing features is that it seeks to advance food sovereignty. As part of the 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni, La Via Campesina, an international federation of rural social movements, defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Throughout the course, my students struggled to connect with the idea of food sovereignty. For many, it seemed like a concept from a different reality—one from the Global South, from countries where people still identify as peasants and where access to land is key to survival.

Through the service-learning project, students gained a first-hand understanding of food sovereignty. They first watched the documentary film Eating Alabama and learned about the complex dynamics of agrarian change in the state—from the loss of family farms to Monsanto’s litigation against farmers who save seed. They then came upon a critical realization while digitally entering the seed records into the online database—many of the seeds had not been grown in approximately ten years, the period after which the seeds may be unviable. Their work creating a digital inventory of the seeds might be worthless if no one grew the seeds before the ten-year period passed.

We reflected on this realization as a class and collectively decided that we could move our class project beyond simple data entry and towards creative action. We organized a seed swap as a way to generate awareness about the SMSB situation and get area farmers, gardeners, and horticultural enthusiasts to help grow and preserve the seeds. On Saturday, April 23rd, my students and I hosted the first West Alabama Seed Swap at the Tuscaloosa River Market. The event included speakers on food sovereignty and food ways, as well as the dissemination of seeds from the SMSB to the interested public. Following the seed swap, Charlotte Haygood, one of the driving forces behind the SMSB, described the event to me as a widely successful, because “many folks came up, made connections, exchanged information, and took home seeds.”

I found teaching a course grounded in critical food systems education to be an incredible learning experience. As part of a collective course evaluation at the end of the semester, students highlighted how valuable it would be in the future to experience first-hand competing forms of productions—such as a large-scale agroindustrial monocrop operations and small-scale organic farms. Similar to Guthman’s experiences, I also recognized that many of my students truly struggled with understanding the intersection of their white privilege with the food system. As I move forward in educating for food sovereignty, I will increasingly attune my pedagogy to the complicated terrain of racial and class-based identities and the structural relations between the local and global food system.


Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

David Meek is an assistant professor in the department who conducts research on food sovereignty in Brazil, India, and the U.S.

Finding the Culture in Acculturation

Author, Courtney Andrews, and her daughter

Author, Courtney Andrews, and her daughter

“Juana,” a Mexican immigrant who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, is a native of a small ranching village in Jalisco. Fifteen years ago, her husband lost his job in Mexico. They had no money saved, and she was scared for the safety of her children because of drug-related crime in their community there. Her husband convinced her that they needed to move to the U.S. where he could find work, they could get their kids in good schools, and they could have better lives. He went first, and, a little while later, Juana paid a “coyote” to take her across the border. After a month-long, treacherous journey, during which she was arrested and sent back, attacked by wild animals, left behind in the desert without food or water, and was constantly scared, she finally made it across the border and eventually to Alabama where her husband was living. He found steady work, and they sent for their three kids, who are now participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Juana and her family have achieved all the things they set out to achieve in moving to the U.S. Yet her health has suffered considerably, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience for people like Juana.

The typical framework used to study what happens to individuals who developed in one sociocultural context when they attempt to live in another is called “acculturation.” In my work with Mexican immigrant women in Alabama, I’m trying to figure out what the acculturative process looks like and why typical measures of acculturation are associated with a dramatic decline in health outcomes, particularly diabetes and depressive symptoms. To understand how cultural meaning systems change and the effects of such meaning on human lives, we need to have a clear concept of what culture is, how it works, and ways to measure it. A cognitive definition of culture is a good place to start because it moves culture out of the realm of abstraction and allows for it to be measured in concrete terms. As Dressler point out in a previous post, culture is the information needed to think and behave appropriately in certain situations and to interpret the behavior of others correctly. This knowledge is encoded in overarching cultural models, which we draw on to structure our understanding of how we ought to live. Once we have an idea of what a cultural model looks like in a certain context, we can measure individuals against it and see how well they stack up. That stacking up is termed “cultural consonance“—the ability to live up to the shared cultural expectations of the group—and it affects health.

So, what’s going on with women like Juana? We know they tend to be in better health upon arrival than their U.S.-born counterparts, despite tremendous suffering before and during immigration. However, as they carry out their lives in the U.S.—even as their standard of living improves and they gain access to better health care—their health often gets worse. Researchers haven’t been able to explain the underlying cultural mechanism responsible for this. I’m interested in using cultural consonance as an intervening variable between measures of acculturation and health outcomes to determine if the pathway by which acculturation leads to declining health is, at least in part, in its effect on the ability to achieve a culturally valued lifestyle.

I focus on four cultural domains—lifestyle, family life, Mexican immigrant identity, and life goals. Using a technique called free listing, I asked my informants to list as many items as they could in response to these four questions:

  1. What kinds of things are important or necessary to have a good life?
  2. How would you describe a loving family?
  3. What are the qualities or characteristics of Mexican immigrant women?
  4. What are your goals in life? This gives me a glimpse into how cultural realities are changing in a new context

The next step is to understand what kinds of things go together and why as well as which items are most highly valued and sought after. This is analyzed using cultural consensus analysis, which measures the extent to which cultural knowledge is shared among informants and provides the best representation of how the collective thinks about a particular domain.

In general, people act in ways that correspond to cultural influences and expectations. I believe that, as Mexican immigrant women carry out their lives in the U.S., they internalize a new cultural model for how one ought to live, and, as they do this, their positions in the cultural landscape change. The further away they find themselves from living a collectively valued lifestyle in their new U.S. cultural context, the greater risk their risk for declining health. For Juana, adapting to a new culture has been difficult. For example, speaking Spanish in the home and celebrating Mexican traditions is very important to her, but she struggles to get her children to do this, which is a source of family discord. Another thing is that she is scared to drive, so she can’t get around easily and has lost her sense of independence.

Reasons for cultural dissonance among immigrants may range from economic constraints, structural or interpersonal violence and abuse, or lack of interest in engaging with a new culture. I hope to improve understanding what role culture plays in immigrant health outcomes as well as what social and institutional factors may limit the achievement of a culturally valued lifestyle. Such limitations may simply produce new stress that contributes to poor health outcomes.


Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

Courtney Andrews is a doctoral candidate in the department who has conducted research in Fiji and Peru and is currently studying Mexican immigrants in Alabama.