Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Paradox of Plenty

Every semester in my Introduction to Comparative Politics class, students read a selection from the work of a Stanford University political scientist, Terry Karl, and her book about oil producing states called The Paradox of Plenty.

So my thoughts turned to Karl's title when I checked Knightvision and found out how many students signed up for my spring course, the Politics of Food. I knew something was cooking, because I received emails from a number of students, and others stopped by my office to tell me that they were looking forward to the class. But I last taught a similar course two years ago, before St. Mike's launched the Environmental Studies program. At that time, students signed up largely because they were familiar with my teaching or they were looking for something a little off the beaten path. And a vocal minority joined us because they had already started to examine the ethical and political nature of their food choices. By the end of the semester, all the students were looking at their food choices in new ways. The first paradox? This year, with more seats available, even more students we're eager to fill those seats.

I teach a course on the Politics of Food in part because food, in a significant way, drives my own moral compass. The choices we make about what we eat, both individually and collectively, and the patterns of food production that sustain these choices, create another paradox of plenty - the abundance of the supermarket that results from the hard work and poverty of rural life in most of the world. Our food choices say a lot about those who produce and those who eat, who we are and what we value. These are the questions I ask in the research I do on food and agriculture related activism in France and the US, and in an article I wrote with Prof. Jeff Ayres that will soon appear in the journal Globalizations. But I don't just look at food choices; I am a "silent partner" in a community supported restaurant in rural Vermont that has received national media attention (even Emeril came to visit) because we explore the relationship between the consumption and production of food, embedded in an emerging local food system. You can read more about our community through the Center for an Agricultural Economy.

Each time I teach The Politics of Food, the farmers and producers I know open their fields, barns, cheese caves, and processing facilities to my students, who come over to rural Vermont to learn about the way farmers live, how they care for the land and animals that feed us, and how they maintain every day of their lives a commitment to social and environmental sustainability.

The photo above was taken at Pete's Greens in Craftsbury, and these two photos are from Bonneview Farm, where sheep are raised for milk and cheese.

To the left is Katie Downes-Angus ('09) and below is Julia Blakeney-Hayward ('09).

The photo below is of Derek Souza ('09) with a calf at Snugg Valley Farm in Hardwick.

It is indeed inspiring when I can share something important to me with so many students who have similar concerns about the choices they make in the world. Add to that being able to contribute in such a significant way to our new Environmental Studies Program and my home department in Political Science, and I know this class will be a very engaged group of students, with a variety of perspectives on food and probably some passionate debates. Some will be more interested in the global trade in farm products or in agro-industrial producers, others in alternative forms of organizing and farming among peasants and farmers. Several students have expressed interest in the restaurant business, so they will learn about the politics of the kitchen in general as well as the dynamics of race, gender, and nation in how we relate to cooking and cuisine. And of course there are sections on food labor, those who work to bring the food to our tables. But I know from the previous course that they will all learn about things they did not expect, and they will look at their food in new ways.

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