Digesting Race, Class, and Gender

How are the ways that race organizes our lives related to the ways gender and class organize our lives? How might these organizing mechanisms conflict or work together? In Digesting Race, Class, and Gender: Sugar as a Metaphor, GW Sociology Professor Ivy Ken likens race, class, and gender to foods – foods that are produced in fields, mixed together in bowls, and digested in our social and institutional bodies. In the field, one food may contaminate another through cross-pollination. In the mixing bowl, each food’s original molecular structure changes in the presence of others. And within a meal, the presence of one food may impede or facilitate the digestion of another. At each of these sites, the “foods” of race, class, and gender are involved in dynamic relationships with each other that have implications for the shape – or the taste – of our social order.   

University Seminar on Food

Convener: Ivy Ken
Associate Professor of Sociology at The George Washington University

During the 2011-12 academic year, GW University Seminar on Food brought together scholars, policy makers, activists, and practitioners in the community of food. The programming was devoted to the theme of appetite. You may have a taste for green beans that are fresh rather than canned, but why? Your hunger for couscous may be a response to your desire to be home as much as to your body's nutritional requirements. Even a baby's preference for food you've made versus food you've bought reflects not just a biological imperative but a social thing - an appetite that emerges in particular social contexts. Thanks to our distinguished guests, we explored some of the sociological, geographic, imperial, and historical roots of this powerful force in our lives.

An Appetite for Baby Food

Amy Bentley, Associate Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, presented "Baby Food and the Industrialization of Taste in the United States." Prof. Bentley's work demonstrates that even babies' appetites are invented, and decisions about what to feed children reflect larger societal events and anxieties. Bentley served as the President of the Association for the Study of Food and Society from 2000 to 2002 and is currently an editorial board member for Food and Foodways and Food, Culture and Society.

An Appetite for Green Beans

Susanne Freidberg presented "The Unnatural History of Freshness." Freidberg, Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, is the author of Fresh: A Perishable History (Belknap 2009). Although our appetite for "fresh" food seems natural and healthy, Prof. Freidberg traces the ways freshness is, in fact, engineered, manufactured, and marketed.  Her cultural history of freshness is likely to prompt a different understanding of the milk and lettuce in your refrigerator. Freidberg is currently a Burkhardt Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies in Cambridge, MA.

An Appetite for Couscous

Sylvie Durmelat presented "Reel Couscous: The Migrant's Table on Screen in Maghrebi-French Cinema." Prof. Durmelat combines her interests in collective identities, food studies, and post-colonial studies as Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Georgetown University, where she teaches a seminar called "Food for Thought." In her current book project, The Taste of Empire:Food Exchanges and Table Matters between France and the Maghreb, Durmelat explores the hunger for connection that may be particularly pronounced among immigrants.    

Next, we gave attention to food policy. The Seminar was focused on arenas in which particular food policies have - amazingly - been written, passed, funded, and at least partially implemented. The process of implementation, though, is a tricky one that deserves more attention. Wwe brought together experts who have created, enacted, and observed some important food policies in order to provide the context that would enable us to better study the manner through which these policies translate into real action and sustainable social change. 

Saving School Lunch

Our first gathering featured DC City Councilmember Mary Cheh, who described the process of passing and funding the 2010 Healthy Schools Act. This law rewards DC's public schools for serving more locally-sourced, unprocessed produce and sets stricter nutrition mandates for school children's meals. At this session we also learned of the victories and challenges of enacting this law in the city's schools over the last year from DC Public Schools Food Services Director, Jeffrey Mills, who is one of very few directors in the country to successfully eliminate flavored milk from students' menus. Finally, awe heard the recommendations of policy implementation expert Janet Phoenix, Assistant Research Professor of Health Policy here at George Washington University.  Dr. Phoenix proposed a potential framework through which interested scholars might approach the Healthy Schools Act as a research topic. You may watch full video of the event here.

Monopoly Meat

In our second opportunity to convene, we took on the important issue of market concentration in relation to one aspect of food production: meat packing.  At present, just four companies control over 80 percent of the cattle packing market.  Barry C. Lynn, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation who has written the book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and The Economics of Destruction (2010, Wiley), provided the context we can use to decipher a monopoly issue such as this. Mark Halverson, Staff Director and Chief Council for the Senate Agriculture Committee, reported on his work with Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who helped to challenge meat packing monopolies in the language of the 2008 Farm Bill.  This Bill invokes the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act in order to give the United States Department of Agriculture the authority to enforce anti-trust activity in the increasingly consolidated meat industry. Researchers at the advocacy group Food & Water Watch have kept an eye on the implementation of this specific anti-trust provision, and Patrick Woodall, Research Director and Senior Policy Advocate there, reported on their research and described the metrics through which a delicate and complicated issue such as this can be studied. You may watch full video of the event here

Collaborative Workshop

During the final workshop, area faculty, students, advocates, and researchers who are interested in pursuing food policy implementation research around these or other topics convened to begin the process of identifying research groups, grant opportunities, and collaborative agendas. Dr. Pamela A. Mischen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the State University of New York at Binghamton presented the keynote address based on her work on "action implementation research." Geralyn Schulz, Associate Dean for Research in the Columbian College, and Amy Butler, Executive Director of Foundation Relations, helped those in attendance identify funding possibilities. 

In all, the programming for the University Seminar on Food, which complements the work of GW's Urban Food Task Force, brought together food policy research already underway on GW's campus with the experts in Washington DC who have created and shaped the processes we hope to continue to study. As we sustain this conversation through Seminar programming in the years to come, we also hope to address such topics such as the philosophy of food, the intertwining of food and religion, the ethics of urban gardening, and the varied international contexts in which food is a tool of the state, among others. 

The Seminar has benefited from the generous support of the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Sociology.

For additional information please contact Ivy Ken at [email protected].

Baby Food and the Industrialization of Taste in the United States

Amy Bentley
Associate Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health
New York University

The Unnatural History of Freshness

Susanne Freidberg
Professor of Geography
Dartmouth College

Reel Couscous: The Migrant's Table on Screen in Maghrebi-French Cinema

Sylvie Durmelat
Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies
Georgetown University

The 2010 Healthy Schools Act: Saving School Lunch
Panel Discussion

DC Councilmember Mary Cheh
Professor of Law, George Washington University  

Jeffrey Mills
Director of Food Services, DC Public Schools

Janet Phoenix, MD, MPH
Assistant Research Professor, Department of Health Policy, George Washington University

The 2008 Farm Bill: Monopoly Meat
Panel Discussion

Mark Halverson
Staff Director, U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee 

Barry C. Lynn
Senior Fellow, New America Foundation

Patrick Woodall
Research Director, Food & Water Watch

Doing Implementation Research
Policy Research Workshop

Keynote Address:  "Action Implementation Research"

Pamela A. Mischen
Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, SUNY-Binghamton 


Geralyn Schulz
CCAS Associate Dean for Research

Amy Butler
GW Executive Director of Foundation Relations