Honors Program Students Chew on Topic of Sustainable Food

by Paul Goraczko, Think Green Correspondent 

VegetablesAs far as college courses go, ‘The Geography of Food: Fast, Slow, Global, Local, Policies, Politics, Economics, Energy, Sustainability, Culture and You,’ is a full-course meal.

Assistant Professor of Geography Wayne Brew jokes that his Honors Colloquium may very well be the longest course title that Montgomery County Community College has to offer, but he ensures it is for a good reason.

“It’s because the goal of the course was to really focus on the issues around food,” Brew said.

And whether we realize it or not, there are a lot of issues and concerns that arise with the agricultural system: sustainability, environmental degradation, government agriculture subsidies, the explosion of the fast food industry, and even health problems caused by the food we consume (to name a few).

Brew’s desire to discuss these issues with students stemmed from another class that is offered at the College. The class, entitled “Food & Culture,” was co-taught by a nutritionist and a geographer and allowed students to learn about how culture plays a role in the cuisines of various civilizations around the world.

While teaching “Food & Culture,” Brew found himself wanting to discuss the issues of food more and more, but found it deviated from the intent of the “Food & Culture” course.

Thus, when Brew was given the chance to design a one-credit honors colloquium in 2009, he took advantage of the opportunity to develop a course that dealt with the issues surrounding food production.

Brew wanted students to understand that we have a global food system that is probably not sustainable.

“The evidence is pretty clear that what we’re doing right now is not sustainable and we have to figure out ways to make it sustainable,” Brew said.

Brew acknowledged that the transition from a highly industrialized agriculture dependent on large amounts of fossil fuels to a more sustainable system would be difficult, but is wholly necessary.

“One of the unsustainable parts of this agriculture is that it’s so dependent on oil,” Brew said. “Oil drives the whole process. It takes ten calories of oil energy to make one calorie of edible food. As oil becomes more scarce and expensive, how are we going to continue to support systems that are based on oil?”

Students in the colloquium were faced with tough questions like these on a regular basis.

To ensure students remained invested in these discussions, Brew made sure that the course remained student-centered. Therefore, Brew ended the course title with “and You.”

“The last thing I ended it with is ‘you,’ because I have the students keep a food diary throughout the course,” Brew said.

The diary requires students to write down what they eat throughout the day.

Brew ensures students that this diary is not so he can critique them, but so they can have an awareness of what they are eating and can see where their food is coming from.

“I keep a food diary along with them and it’s helpful for me,” Brew said. “Every time I do that, I take something new away from it, based on a pattern I see or something I think I could improve upon.”

At the end course, students were asked to reflect upon their diets in a reaction paper.

The students used resources such as Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan, along with many other articles that focused upon food issues, policies, and sustainability to inform their reaction papers.

Brew says these books give students an eye-opening look at food production in the United States.

He also supplemented these readings with the screening of two films.

The first, “Food Inc.,” is a 2008 documentary that examines and critiques corporate farming in America in what Brew describes as a “horror story approach.”

The second, “King Corn,” is a 2007 documentary that spotlights the role government subsidies play in the production of corn in America.

Other highlights of the course include two mapping projects.

The first mapping project requires students to look at how many fast food restaurants and convenience stores there are within the two-mile radius surrounding their house.

Students then read articles on “junk food geography”—meaning very poor urban or rural areas where the access to healthy food is very limited due to limited budgets or geographical restraints—and come to have a greater understanding of the food options offered to their communities.

The second project requires students to map out a supermarket of their choice. They have to document the layout, take pictures, draw a map and answer questions related to the store’s floor plan.

The project helps students to see that supermarkets are tactically designed to lead consumers to make certain decisions.

In the class’ final meeting, students learned more about locally sourced food and shared a meal that was made entirely from locally sourced food suppliers.

Chef David Green, Chef and Food Service Manager with CulinArt at the College’s Central Campus, prepared the food, which consisted of locally sourced chicken and vegetables including carrots, potatoes, and salad greens.

Chef Green led a discussion with the students in which he described the many changes he has made over the years to make the food services at the college more sustainable.

“He does amazing things,” Brew said. “He is a great spokesman for many of the things that I talk about in the course and he’s the person that actually practices these things by trying to buy all his foods locally, which is not cheaper, but is better quality and supports sustainable and organic farms.”

Overall, Brew hopes students who take the course will ultimately question the policies and politics behind food production in America.

To ensure that they start thinking more about these policies, Brew asks students to take one of the problems identified during the course and look into possible solutions for it, including systematic policy changes or economic shifts that would improve our food systems by making them more sustainable.

Brew said these papers are often the highlight of the course for him, because of the realizations, thinking, and ideas that students exhibited.

Click here to learn more about the Honors Program at the College.

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