Food for Thought in the Classroom - Center for the Arts and Humanities

Food for Thought in the Classroom

Food For Thought

We’ve had an exciting line-up of Food for Thought-affiliated courses this semester, and Assistant Professor of History Danae Jacobson’s survey of U.S. History to 1865 was no exception. Her class serves as an entry level course and offers students a chance to discover the nuances of historical study. In a conversation with Professor Jacobson, she expressed that this course asks students to “see and notice why history matters,” while she must find a way to “teach it in a way that is compelling to them.” The class is spent highlighting different historical events pre-conquest Indigenous America through the Civil War. Each week takes a different theme — and a new lens.

The week students focused on Food for Thought had much in store. “We focused on African foodways and Indigenous foodways,” Professor Jacobson said. “I wanted to introduce students to the ideas that food in those communities was not just about caloric intake.” The first part of the week centered around historical examples such as rice, maize, and bison, while the latter engaged students with the question of what food sovereignty means today. To introduce students to ideas about Native food sovereignty in the present, the class watched a clip from the series Reservation Dogs, created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo. The students learned about the history of fry bread–a product of reservation rations–and asked themselves what is traditional and what is adaptation when it comes to food. Jacobson pointed to one particularly illuminating article for students: “African and Native American foodways and resilience: From 1619 to COVID-19” (Lunsford, Arthur, and Porter 2021), which highlights what food sovereignty movements mean today, in light of the past that actively shapes current foodways of the United States. 

After an intensive learning period, the students posted to a discussion board to share their thoughts with each other. Jacobson recalls that student comments tended to express similar sentiments: “I knew what sovereignty meant but I didn’t know what food sovereignty meant” or “I didn’t really understand how those histories continue to shape present day communities of Native people and Black Americans.” A number of students spoke about how having an awareness of food sovereignty and food histories has helped them to gain a better understanding of their own food histories and communities. In another assignment they were able to choose a food item and spend time researching and reflecting on its biological and cultural history. “It was really special. A lot of students chose something from their own culture—some wrote about rice, Yerba mate…. They were really amazing.” Eva Schiffman ’24 chose to write about chocolate, exploring its extensive global history. Schiffman writes that “for most of chocolate’s existence, it has been a food for the upper classes… [Today, chocolate] is still based on a system of exploitation where farming is done in much poorer countries, and larger and rich countries, and individuals are the ones benefiting both from the product and the profit made by the product.”

Anna Staton ’25 studied honey, a food substance she has close ties with. “At my house in Vermont, my mom keeps honey bees in our backyard in three hives,” she writes. Both honey and bees have a direct relationship with climate change, she notes, by pointing to the fact that bees have been dying “at an exceptional rate.” Causes of this phenomenon include a variety of factors: “pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming, and more” (Schwartz, Kuenzle and Pinsky, 2014). Reframing her relationship with honey, Staton shifts from the lens of economics and food production to sustainability and environmental consciousness.

Food impacts much more than one’s own taste buds, and holds a more intimate bond with society, culture, and the environment than just its caloric intake. This year’s Center for the Arts and Humanities annual theme has a deeper connection to the wider world than one might originally suspect. We are excited to see what the spring semester has in store for us. Thank you to Danae and her students for sharing their food journeys with us!   

Referenced Materials:

-Jason Schwartz, Marianne Kuenzle, and David Pinsky, “Save the Bees,” Greenpeace USA, June 18, 2014, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/save-the-bees/.

-Lunsford, Lindsey, et al. “African and Native American Foodways and Resilience: From 1619 to Covid-19.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 2021, pp. 1–25., https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2021.104.008.