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by Kristin Proulx Jarvis
This fall, Grace Fraser, associate professor of anthropology and sociology, took students on a tour through the world’s nutritional history, from curry and baklava to Thanksgiving turkeys, ceremonial wines and Coca Cola. In a class called Integrated Perspectives on Food Issues, Fraser and her students visited the first tilled rows of early agriculturalists, examined the often unfair politics of food distribution and learned how best to navigate through a modern world of fast food, famines and factory farming.
Integrated Perspectives on Food Issues covers multiple aspects of food’s importance to the world. Students examined the history, biology, philosophy, sociology and art of food and eating, from prehistory to today, and even had a chance to recreate one of the oldest staple foods eaten by people all over the world. In October, a “bread lab” assignment challenged students to bake and share a loaf of bread, while learning about the cultural, religious and geographic significance of their edible creations.
Fraser has been teaching Food Issues classes off and on since 1993. The course meets undergraduate requirements for the Integrative Perspective, a requirement in the new General Education program that focuses on making connections between various academic disciplines. Students in this fall’s session were working toward degrees in a variety of majors, including education, health, marketing and social sciences.
Through discussions, readings, guest speakers and lectures, students were surprised to learn how important food and eating can be to history, culture and even family dynamics. In an early November guest lecture, Professor of Anthropology/Sociology Stacey Yap talked about the relationship between food and violence in the home. Near Thanksgiving, the class discussed the cultural importance of shared holiday foods.
“There’s so much to talk about, it’s hard to narrow it down,” said Fraser.
The bread lab, for instance, was an eye-opening experience for both the students and Fraser. In pairs, students prepared bread recipes from around the world and brought their fresh-baked creations to class to share. Students explained the cultural background of their recipes and the process of preparing the bread, then handed out samples. Fraser also demonstrated proper bread-kneading techniques, and gave each student a chance to try the art themselves. Fraser chose to assign bread-baking because of the food’s cultural, nutritional, religious and historical significance.
“There are only a few cultures on earth that don’t make some kind of bread,” said Fraser. “Whether it is made from wild nuts or seeds or fruits, leavened or unleavened, cooked on a hot stone or in a convection oven, bread approaches the status of ‘universal food.’”
On a more somber note, students also spent part of the semester studying the tragedy of world hunger. They looked at the problem from a variety of viewpoints, examining the history and economics of food distribution and the history of famines, droughts and other natural disasters.
Throughout the semester, students were given a chance to explore in depth topics that interested them about food, culture and society. Student research projects included studies of childhood obesity, fast food advertising, large food corporations, factory farming and West African famines. As part of their integrated study, students were required to examine each issue or problem from a variety of perspectives, looking at history, health, science, philosophy, sociology and other disciplines to guide their learning.
In the past, Fraser has offered Food Issues classes every few semesters. Recently, though, the class has become so popular, she would like to offer a section every fall.
“It’s fun, and it’s a learning experience,” she said. “Students get a lot out of the different perspectives.”