by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2014

Is Food Studies the end of civilization? Really?

Before my talk at the University of North Carolina Charlotte this week, I was introduced by its Chancellor who read from an article written by Mary Grabar who works for a local conservative think tank, the Pope Center.

“Food studies” has become an academic growth area, adding to the deterioration of the humanities, and to the advancement of leftist ideologies. No doubt our universities will be producing many more “scholars” investigating all aspects of food: food and race, food and capitalism, food and gender, etc.  But we will have fewer graduates familiar with literary and philosophical masterpieces.  Fewer will be able to produce good writing—or real food.

The audience was amused, as was I, and I think my talk was a sufficient rebuttal on its own.

But I do want to comment on her remarks directly.

Food Studies, she argues, has “little to do with legitimate intellectual endeavors like agriculture or nutrition science. Instead, food becomes another lens through which to examine oppression, sustainability, and multiculturalism.”

It most certainly does all of that, and is perfect for those purposes.

What could be possibly be more democratic than food?

Everyone eats.

Food studies, which tends to promote local, organic, seasonal, sustainable and healthful food, inherently questions the industrial food system.  It also promotes food equity, food justice, and food sovereignty.  No wonder it worries conservatives.

I, for example, teach courses in food policy, politics, and advocacy, in which I teach students how to analyze food systems and advocate for those that promote the health of people and the planet.

When my academic department at NYU inaugurated our undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in food studies in 1996—18  years ago!—we could hardly have predicted how quickly the field would spread to other universities or how brilliant and exciting so much of its scholarship would turn out to be.

I’m proud of my own contributions to the field and thrilled that Food Studies has gotten to the point where conservative critics worry that it might be effective.

In one sense, Ms. Grabar’s article helps the field.  It contains links to websites for several Food Studies programs, ours among them.

For other such links and additional resources, go to the website of the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

This is a wonderful field of study.  Come join us!

  • Gods Gift

    Grabar makes some good points worthy of intelligent consideration. Our food movement is embarrassed by boilerplate “rebuttals” such as yours. Apart from labeling Grabar a conservative (and all that implies, we too we all too well know) you merely contradict her with your own myopic opinion. And that is the attitude, precisely, Grabar alludes to. Especially since you, of all people, are standing much too close to “food studies” to achieve a focused viewpoint you have merely validated Grabar’s charges, have you not? Our food movement seems to have stagnated with the current crop of self-congratulatory foodie rock stars hogging the limelight, not nearly enough new critical thinking, no advancement of our conceptual framework. Michael Pollan asserted our food movement was dead if California failed to pass Prop 37. It didn’t pass and Pollan was right – our movement is stalled. Unless someone can meet Grabar’s argument point by point our cause is lost.

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  • We need more people to “analyze food systems and advocate for those that promote the health of people and the planet” and to offer this information in simpler terms more readily to even younger people so their win-win choices can become ingrained habits.

    As a primary school teacher I know that kids just eat this stuff up. When you give them the ‘back story’ on anything and connect the dots they get passionate and want to make a difference.

    We underestimate kids and the positive influence they can have on their parents (who make the buying decisions for the household)!

    Lasting change often starts with young people.

  • Alice Julier

    Marion saves me from having to think about this for any longer than it really requires. As we’ve said before, rocks are ubiquitous and they have a field of study. Just because we breathe air every day doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand it scientifically and politically.

  • Bristol

    I also love Marion and others who do my thinking for me. Such a convenience! I only wish she would think things through a little more completely herself before telling me what to think. Seems every time I regurgitate the Marion Nestle koolaid somebody calls me out for superficiality and I am embarrassed when I cannot defend the talking points. But what the heck. Who wants to have to think for themselves, eh?

  • Alice Julier

    perhaps you shouldn’t drink Kool Aid without reading more…