Nibbling Thoughts on Food

Ethics of Food Production course does a deep dive into the food industry, changing habits and some gardening tips.


By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 27, 2011) – It’s not a good idea to get between a hungry animal and its food.


This can apply to humans, too, especially when it comes to their favorite dishes. So it was with a little fear and trepidation that University of South Florida Visiting Instructor Sara Dykins Callahan offered her new course, “The Ethics of Food Production” that concluded its pilot outing last semester. 


“Food is great, everybody loves it. But food is not just food. It’s important to understand that food is a text you can deconstruct like any other text and like any other text, it should be understood within the context of its sociocultural and historical moment,” she said. 


And there was another important point to be made. Developed with Daniel Belgrad, associate professor and chair of the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies and Dell DeChant, associate chair of the Department of Religious Studies, the course set out to “help position the humanities as integral to the future of USF.”


“This course makes a case for why the humanities are a part of this global and sustainable trajectory of the university,” Callahan said. 


In addition to lectures, reading and discussions, the idea was to have the class participate in the process of food production via a community garden. Callahan’s experience with amateur gardening sealed it and the course was born with the help of the staff at the USF Botanical Gardens, Director Laurie Walker and Special Events Coordinator Kim Hutton.


Callahan didn’t want to simply say, “Oh, how horrible things are.” She wanted to have the students brainstorm solutions, ask critical questions of themselves and society and get their hands dirty to appreciate how relatively easy it is to grow organic food. 


With a design and a location in place, she still wasn’t sure what to expect. But “The Ethics of Food Production” filled up quickly, with a waiting list, no less. By the end of the semester the class was dining together on food they planted, grew and prepared with their own hands. 


Between the first class and the last a lot had happened.


Starting out, the students weren’t exactly sure what to expect either.  At least one self-proclaimed “conservative” said he felt he wouldn’t fit into a course that planned to explore the “distancing from our food sources” and the affect on “our relationships to the Earth, to our spirituality, and to one another…,” according to the course description.  But looking around for a capstone course or to fill a requirement led him and just about all the students to consider the class. Being open to something new paid off. 


Senior Vanessa Michel, a behavioral science major, said, “I could have picked any other class and I saw food, and I like food so, I’m like hmm, interesting. So then I took it and it was way more than what I signed up for!”  She meant this in a good way. Like all of the students interviewed, she said it was fun – more fun than expected.


The love of food also drew in junior Chelsea Klotz, a criminology major. And she wasn’t disappointed. 


“We talked about treatment of animals, how factory farms are effecting the environment, we also learned things about vegetarianism and veganism, we made meals. We learned how easy it is to make those kinds of foods and transition if you wanted to.” 


For mass communications junior Sarah Lonergan the class was something of a stretch. “I don’t like insects and I don’t like dirt. It was really hard to learn how to do the soil and the plants and keep the bugs away.”


But the course had its impact on Lonergan.


“I’m not planning on switching completely to a vegan diet,” she said, “but I’m planning on purchasing from places that don’t do factory farming. It was an eye-opener.”


Senior Rene Zapata, an international relations major, didn’t have to work as hard as he expected. “It’s actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be – usually when you think of farming you think of hard work, back breaking labor, planting, but actually it allows you to connect with nature again and to be a part of something big even though it’s on a small scale.


“The most important thing that I took away from this class is to just be aware that there’s always more choices out there – that it’s not just a one-sided issue, to just look at the big picture as a whole,” he said. “It’s one of those classes that will force you to think.”


Vineep Syal, a senior and biology major wanted something less theoretical in his program this year. “It’s an experiential course, so that’s what made me take it.”  And besides, he added, “You become like a kid again, having fun.” 


It was a no sweat proposition for senior Nnaemeka Umeh. In his home country of Nigeria, he already had experience. “I’m used to it,” the chemistry major said. “I was a farmer before. I adapted to it the first day.  It was nice to come outside. I liked the hands on.”


The course produced a range of changes in points of view regarding food. At one end you can put Jason Hicks, the conservative junior in economics. He enjoyed the class after all but is “certainly not going to change into a vegan or a vegetarian,” he said, declaring he will continue to eat meat. But he is now an educated consumer.


“I knew that there were problems with the food production industry in the U.S. but had no idea of the extent of the damage that was being done, so my family has certainly started to shop more organic and look for some of the labeling that we know now may or may not be true.” 


On the other hand, for Alexandra Tamborello, meat is a thing of the past. “At first I was not a vegetarian when I began the class. And just learning about animal cruelty and what goes into factory farming has really touched my heart, I guess, and I decided not to eat any meat. I’m in a slow process of becoming vegan. I’ve made the choice, I’ve changed.”


Somewhere in the middle you’ll find junior Phillistine Hamdan, majoring in international relations. “I definitely don’t look at food the same. I’m not completely vegan, I don’t eat organically or anything 100 percent but I’m definitely on that path.”


On hand for the harvest feast at the end of the course, where students shared garden-grown lettuce and homemade organic treats, Belgrad saw firsthand how students took to the whole experience. Talking and laughing together, they had clearly bonded sharing the task of taking turns to tend their plot of land.


“I’m very proud of Sara’s course,” said Belgrad. “It’s a great example of how a liberal arts education is key to thinking productively about real world problems.”


Callahan is ready for more.


“I consider it an extreme success; we’re going to offer it again in the fall. We’ve made lots of connections with local community organizations, so I want to continue developing those relationships so that we can actually turn this into a service learning course, that’s my goal.” 


Barbara Melendez can be reached at (813) 974-4563.