Chew On It: New J-Term Class Delves Into 'The Politics of Food'

January 11, 2010 — When was the last time during a meal that you thought about the full story behind what you were eating? What was in the full list of ingredients? Where, when and how were the ingredients grown and processed?

Such questions kicked off a January term class at the University of Virginia on "The Politics of Food." Politics professor Paul Freedman distributed a bag of groceries to the students, and asked them to consider exactly what they did and did not know about each item.

What goes into Twinkies to enable them to have no expiration date? Why does one brand of pancake syrup contain four different corn-based ingredients, including the ubiquitous "high-fructose corn syrup"? Why does Kraft Macaroni & Cheese contain calcium phosphate and "yellow 5"? (And what exactly is "yellow 5"?)

There's a story behind every step in the often-circuitous journey of food from a field to your plate, Freedman said. Thanks to bestsellers like "Fast Food Nation" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma," documentaries such as "Food, Inc." and a growing local foods movement – all of which appear on the syllabus – food politics and policy have been receiving more attention in recent years.

The class looks at food politics "through a series of food fights," Freedman said, from agricultural subsidies and current farming practices to labeling requirements, food safety, and advertising and education issues, including the famous – and controversial – Food Pyramid.

Food-related legislation, regulation and subsidies for particular products and practices have critical implications for the environment and for health, he said, including a dramatic rise in obesity, diabetes and drug-resistant infections.

After just a few days in the class, several students had already altered their eating habits. Third-year Rashawnda James gave up eating chicken after watching "Food, Inc." and seeing how factory farms cram chickens into cages so tiny that they can never spread their wings. One line from the film, "We're not breeding chicken; we're breeding food," conveyed the objectification and inhumane treatment of animals endemic to factory farming, James said.

She also swore off fast food. "I actually didn't eat one night because I didn't want to eat fast food," she said.

Fourth-year Laura O'Neill said she'd like to change her eating habits, but it would be hard to do so while she's a student.

Third-year Lyle LaCour gave up steak for a day after reading "Fast Food Nation," but said he loved the taste and couldn't give it up for long. He looked forward to purchasing some locally raised beef on Friday during a class field trip to Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

On Thursday, the class focused on food safety and public health, with guest speaker Stuart M. Pape, a managing partner at Washington lobbying firm Patton Boggs and former associate chief counsel at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who earned his bachelor's and law degrees from U.Va.

After a lengthy explanation of how the FDA has never found any evidence that organic milk is any safer than conventional milk, Pape noted that he personally buys organic milk.

When a student asked why, he noted that he didn't want to serve any additional hormones to his 12-year-old daughter. Then he continued: "Some of the food choices we make are legitimately just a matter of preference. I don't have to defend the organic milk choice on safety grounds. I just feel more comfortable serving my family organic. I may be doing something completely irrational."

Freedman noted that he also purchased organic milk for his family, and had a hard time explaining, even to himself, exactly why he made that choice. "I think it's a little superstitious. I think a lot of my food choices are tied not to reason, and not necessarily even to preference or taste, but to practice and tradition and habit."

"Eating is something we do every day," he said, "but few of us think much about."

— By Brevy Cannon