Can Food Studies Make Us Better Shoppers?

Last Friday was a gorgeous spring day in New York City, perfect for the initiative that GrowNYC and the New School have planned to mark Earth Week. GrowNYC is a non-profit that, among other activities, runs many of the farmer markets in New York City. Both students and faculty have organized bite-size public talks in the Union Square market throughout the month of April. If you missed the first session, the series will continue on Friday April 20, and Saturday April 28 to share research, thoughts, and experiences with all the shoppers that may feel like stopping by to listen and have a discussion.

As I was getting ready to give my talk, a distinguished older gentleman started a conversation with me and one of the organizers. Among other things, he recommended that we teach our students to buy and consume less, arguing that if we enjoy more of what we consume, we will be happier and will not need as much. He pointed out, for instance, that nowadays people throw out chicken parts that could be cooked and used. The chat with the passersby made me pause and revise my notes for my talk, "Can Food Studies make us better shoppers?" Food Studies is a growing discipline, as the recent article by The New York Times has reminded its readers. Why does Food Studies attract students? Does it actually contribute to their education as individuals and as citizens?

I do think that Food Studies can help us become better shoppers, and hopefully achieve much more than that. Let me first explain what I mean by "better shoppers." It is not a matter of moral superiority. The last thing we need is an area of research and social practice based on self-righteousness. Being betters shopper does not mean being smarter or endowed with greater cultural capital to spend on what we eat. It certainly does not coincide with bargain hunting and extreme couponing, as respectable as those activities may be, especially in tough economic times. And above all, being better shoppers does not factor coolness or the embrace of fashionable activities and ideas.

In my opinion, being better shoppers reflects empowerment to make informed choices based on the goals, priorities, and ethical principles we consider important, whatever they may be. For the gentleman I chatted with before my talk, this meant limiting our desire to consume. Some might agree with it, some might not, while others, unfortunately, are forced to adopt it not out of choice but by necessity. In any case, we should be able to have access to the necessary information to shape and argue for our positions, whatever they are.

Food Studies should urge us to better understand the world we live in by developing critical thinking and the capacity to participate in public debates surrounding an aspect of our lives that affects all of us in a very visceral, direct way. After all, what we eat literally becomes part of us and impacts the way we think of ourselves. This might be one of the reasons why there is so much anxiety around food. Public attention around food system issues is growing and food-related venues in the media are multiplying. This does not necessarily mean that making informed choices has become easier.

It is important that Food Studies keeps us in close connection with the most tangible and material aspects of our society: Food needs to be produced, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed of. For this reason, Food Studies needs to be interdisciplinary, drawing from agricultural sciences, environmental studies, biology, nutrition, economics, business, law, marketing, politics, post-colonial studies, gender studies, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, design, architecture, technology, media and communication, among other fields of research. Furthermore, to avoid any temptation of academic sclerosis and canonization, Food Studies could profit from an ongoing dialogue with practitioners in profit and non-profit organizations, private and public institutions, as well as grass root movements.

This is a very tall order, and one that the discipline contends with as it is defined in a multiplicity of programs across the country and all over the world. The impact of Food Studies will not only be measured in terms of occupation opportunities for faculty and students, but also in flexibility, aptitude toward public engagement, and cultural relevance.