ACDC agency: food politics with community college students at Vassar.

Author:Cowan, Robert

Gastronomically Slumming It

The food at ACDC, Vassar's All-College Dining Commons, stinks. At least it does during the summer. Not that it literally smells foul; it just doesn't taste very good and lacks nutritional value. The students in the Exploring Transfer (ET) program eat breakfast and dinner at ACDC during their stay on campus, and lunch in another dining area called "The Retreat," which has fewer options. ET is a sort of academic boot camp for high-achieving community college students who hope to transfer to an elite liberal arts college or a Research I university. The oldest program of its kind--serving over 1,000 students in its thirty-one-year history, over 80% of whom have gone on to four-year colleges, including many Ivies--ET is a full-scholarship program in which about 35 students take two three-credit courses over five weeks, each co-designed and co-taught by one community college professor and one from Vassar (Kosmacher).

The course I had the privilege to co-teach in Exploring Transfer during the summers of 2012 and 2013 was entitled Feast or Famine: Food, Society, Environment. I had taught an Orientalism/Occidentalism course in ET in 2010, but my Vassar partner hadn't continued in the program, so I was asked whether I would be interested in teaching a course on food politics with Pinar Batur, professor of sociology and chair of Environmental Studies. Though a literature professor, I had taught a lot of texts on food issues in composition classes and jumped at the chance to explore such a pressing constellation of issues with such a rarified group of students. So Pinar and I began working on a middle ground between sociology and literary study. This course became a survey of issues concerning food systems, such as industrial farming, the role of agricultural lobbyists, food sovereignty in developing countries, food stamps, food deserts, overfishing, the roles of the USDA, FDA, WTO, IMF. We explored writers who occupy those overlapping genre spaces of environmental literature--journalism, personal essay, poetry, fiction--such as George Perkins Marsh, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, and Rebecca Solnit; purely nonfiction writers like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan; as well as some not generally thought of as environmental writers but who hit on relevant issues like exploitation and imperialism, such as Joseph Mitchell and Ray Bradbury. And yet, with all of the insights the students were gleaning from these authors, they had to eat the crappy food at ACDC, prepared by a large corporation. We wondered what we could do about this ironic discrepancy.

In the two sections of this course Pinar and I taught over those two summers, we had students from Argentina, Bosnia, Bourkina Faso, China, El Salvador, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, the Philippines, Sweden, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. They came from community colleges mostly in the New York area, but also from as far away as Boston, Maine, Los Angeles, and Dine Community College, which is on a Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona. Quite apart from anything having to do with food, "AC/DC" seemed an apt metaphor for the ET program, not for its pop-metal music connotations or sexual innuendo, but in its original electrical meaning, for ET demands that students who are accustomed to operating in one current suddenly adjust to quite another. That is to say, these primarily low-income, urban, first-generation college students are suddenly studying on a bucolic campus with huge old trees of many exotic species and beautiful nineteenth-century buildings outfitted with all the latest high-tech gear. Community college students are used to code-switching when it comes to language and culture, but when placed in the context of Vassar--recently listed as the second most expensive college in the country at almost $48,000 a year for tuition and fees (Sheehey)--these students are class-switching. But for all the hallowed splendor of the campus, the regular students at Vassar (1) are not able to escape the reach of industrial food giants on their campus either. Food inequality has generally been thought of as a class issue--for many very good and logical reasons, such as the fact that the least healthy foods are often the least expensive; however, as our globalized economic system has expanded, such forms of inequality now affect all classes. We are all subject to the dictates of larger and larger companies that benefit from the contradictory roles of government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which as both nutrition-policymaker and agribusiness advocate helps corporations use high volume and cheaper ingredients to undersell smaller competitors and thus increase market share. Acknowledging such inequalities can make us all feel like we are gastronomically slumming it.

Critiques from Minamata to Mars

The course description on the syllabus asked two questions: "How do environmental thinkers approach the construction of the future?" and "How has this construction informed present debates on the impact of industrialization, urbanization, state-building, and collective movements on food production and distribution, societal challenges, and the environment?" These guiding questions were followed by our plan of attack: "We will examine how environmental thought informs different articulations of policy, the limits of praxis, and...

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