Nothing's Off the Table in a Course about Food

Mapping food from the farm gate to the dinner table, a unique interdisciplinary course at CSUSM is helping students think critically about the food their they're purchasing and putting in their mouths. Offered during the fall semester, the geography of food course was introduced into the Liberal Studies curriculum in 2009 as an upper division general education course integrating the physical and social sciences to examine the production and impact of food. Most recently, the course became part of the university's new Geography Minor, which was added in fall 2010 to the academic offerings at CSUSM.

"Everyone talks about food and everyone has a vested interest in food on some level," explained Dr. Greig Guthey, the professor of the Geography of Food course. "It is important for each of us to understand the commodity chain of our food system and know where food comes from, how it's produced, and the affects effects of that system in impacting our health, environment, and culture."

Geography of Food explores the impacts of race, class, gender, culture, science, economy, and policy on the global agro-food system. With a full roster of 35 undergraduates enrolled in the Tuesday/Thursday class, the students are just as diverse as the discussion topics, with majors ranging from communication and human development to economics and biotechnology.

"Without question this course has opened my eyes to the truth behind the food I consume, which has transformed me into a smarter buyer," said Liberal Studies junior, Jose Melo. "Now, I think twice about the food I purchase and eat."

A popular assignment of the course, Dr. Guthey's "Food Shed" self-analysis study requires students to map their food purchases, scrutinizing product labels for their contents and for any indication of the product's geographic origin. After charting the food's origin and graphically mapping the production and distribution locations, the assignment prompts two key questions: were you aware of what was in your food, and most notably, are you "corn walking?"

"Corn walking," a phrase coined by author Michael Pollan in his New York Times best-seller "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which is the primary course text for the class, signifies America's dependence on corn-based products.

"Corn is found in almost every processed food in a supermarket, including chicken nuggets, soft drinks, yogurts, candies, cereals, and the list could go on and on," Melo shared. "It hints at how dependent the United States is on corn for food and economic well being."

With the vast majority of processed foods being connected to corn, this staple commodity has been strongly linked to dietary health complications, including obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes, which is another area that the class examines: health. Dr. Guthey articulates that point by scrutinizing a typical McDonald's menu, in which corn-based products make up 100 percent of soda, 78 percent of milkshakes, 52 percent of cheeseburgers, and 23 percent of the chain's famous French fries.

Recent reports forecast that the current American generation could be the first generation to see its life expectancy decline. Similarly, a child born in 2000 has a one in three chance of developing diabetes. In general, three out of five Americans are overweight, and one in five is obese. And it's not just Americans seeing their waistlines expand, Dr. Guthey explained. Obesity is a global health problem that affects both developed and developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. With a world population of six billion people, more than one sixth are overfed, while one billion go hungry.

"It's interesting seeing the differences between countries that are very Americanized in their eating habits versus countries that still eat very traditionally," said fellow classmate Rhianna Rodea, a junior studying chemistry.  "The contrast between countries in what is considered food, what is considered healthy, and what a family does when they are poverty stricken in order to feed their children are all very interesting to me."

In addition to reflection papers, readings, lectures, and film critiques, students participate in a hands-on field trip touring Tierra Miguel Farm, a biodynamic farm in Pauma Valley. Biodynamic farming is a form of sustainable and self-contained organic farming that emphasizes food quality and soil health by not using artificial chemicals. In-class guest speakers, including representatives from the San Diego County Farm Bureau, add additional perspectives to the issues surrounding the region's food system.

"Experts in our community are thinking about food from a systematic perspective," added Dr. Guthey. "What this course teaches is not simply a textbook analysis, but a real world examination of our food system and its impact on our environment, economy, health, and global-social relationships."

For students looking to gain a new perspective on food, Geography of Food will return as a course offering in fall 2011, renamed Food Systems and Emerging Markets. Providing a few words of wisdom on what advice he'd give to shoppers, Dr. Guthey encourages consumers to stick to shopping on the perimeter of a grocery store, avoiding the center isles where the majority of processed foods are located.

"Through this course, students are given the knowledge to become informed consumers," Dr. Guthey explained. "It invites dialogue and discussion about what we eat and the impacts of our food system. It doesn't matter who takes the class, each student will find something relevant and applicable to their daily life."

"Without question this course has opened my eyes to the truth behind the food I consume, which has transformed me into a smarter buyer," said Liberal Studies junior, Jose Melo.