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.

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