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.

Talking about Race with “White Person Bias”

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Fieldwork. We all do it, yet it seems to be something that’s particularly hard to teach and talk about, especially when so much of the success of fieldwork in any anthropological sub-discipline hinges on a researcher’s ability to form genuine social relationships. I’ve heard people say, “You just can’t teach that” about this keystone of success. Well, Russ Bernard has shown us that many elements of the focused attention required for fieldwork can be taught (see his section on participant-observation from Research Methods in Anthropology, AltaMira, 2011), while books like Tales of the Field (Van Maanen),Disasters in Field Research (Ice, DuFour, and Stevens), and I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Logsdon) speak to the need in the social sciences to share and learn from fieldwork mistakes and misadventures.

I continue to be fascinated by the exigencies of fieldwork, perhaps in part because they are so universal yet typically not prioritized in discussion—so familiar, yet so strange, to quote the theme of the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting in Denver.

Chris Lynn and I have organized a session for the meeting titled, “Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research,” which we designed as a forum for an updated discussion of the practicalities of field research. Our inspiration came in part from Clancy and colleagues’ recent PLoS One study on sexual harassment in the field, which received a lot of press last year (a shocking 70% of the over 500 women they interviewed reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their field research careers, while 25% reported actual assault). Robin Nelson, one of the study’s authors, will serve as our session discussant.

I am especially excited about this session because, although the presenters are all professors, the topics address challenges common at all stages of research and training.Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations, for instance, will explore how fieldworkers manage and respond to trauma, both theirs and others’, in field research. My presentation will use data from a small study of fieldworkers at various stages of their research careers to explore how they grapple with racial differences between themselves and their informants. Chris Lynn’s and Michaela Howells‘, meanwhile, will discuss fieldwork and family—a favorite topic of mine and one relevant for graduate students and faculty members. There are important lessons to be learned here for students, mentors, and fieldworkers at all stages.

My desire to talk about race and racially charged encounters in fieldwork stems in part from my employment in a largely white department (as most anthropology departments are) in the deep south. Our department’s faculty are particularly concerned with social inequity in health outcomes, which means that our research and teaching often put us in contact with disenfranchised people in the greater Alabama area, many of whom identify with minority racial groups. The ongoing racial tensions in our community, which are more blatant though probably no stronger than anywhere else in the U.S. right now, undoubtedly shape our research and teaching—especially when it comes to understanding and reflecting on how we are perceived by the people with whom we work.

Early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness…It is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past.

 

Last year, when I received a student review that claimed my teaching suffered from “white person bias,” I took the comment very seriously because I regularly teach about social inequality and social justice in the south. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage racial difference in an overarching cultural context of racial tension meaningfully, respectfully, and in a way that is useful to all parties involved. Although I thought I was doing this pretty well, my student’s comment reminds me that I have a long way to go. So, my motivation for doing a study of fieldworkers’ engagement with race is partially selfish.

 

This issue is also important from a historic perspective in anthropology. We all know that early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness. Typically, when anthropologists read these materials today, we do so with an understanding that we must overlook the racism embedded in these authors’ works if we want to extract their insights. We say that we can’t get caught up in their racism because that’s just how things were back then.

 

But I think it is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past. No matter our intentions, we are still an overwhelmingly white discipline that works with people all over the world who do not identify as white. We are still an overwhelmingly white set of authority figures, and our classrooms reflect much greater racial and ethnic diversity than our anthropology faculties and departments do. We need to talk about these things.

 

So, come to our AAA session and help me figure out how to be a better anthropologist. You might learn something, too.

“Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research”
Invited Session sponsored by the Biological Anthropology Section and the General Anthropology Division
Thursday, November 19 4:00 pm- 5:45 PM

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

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


This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ October 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”