Politics of Food: Lifting the Veil on the Daily Diet

January 12, 2024 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

They took a lesson from a woman out standing in her field. 

About two dozen University of Virginia students in Paul Freedman’s January term course on the Politics of Food clustered around Fiona Flynn, manager of the University’s Morven Kitchen Garden, a program of the Morven Sustainability Lab, listening carefully to explanations of crop rotation, hoop-house growing, soaker-hose irrigation and combination planting. 

Flynn compared the Morven Garden’s eight growing plots of 30 to 40 rotated crop varieties with large commercial operations’ monoculture – a single crop on a single acre. She also talked about marketing Morven’s produce, much of which is purchased by Aramark and served in UVA dining halls.

Freedman has been teaching the Politics of Food for 14 years, starting it as a January term course before expanding it into a full-semester offering as well.

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The course explores the intersections of agriculture, food processing, marketing and politics, but the focus keeps expanding.

“One of the things that I really like about it is to see how hungry the students are for this material,” Freedman said. “There was a real desire on their part to learn something about the food system.”

Freedman assigns articles and books, shows them films and brings in guest lecturers. One text that has stayed constant over the years is Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in which Pollan tracks a variety of food chains – industrial, organic and foraged food – from source to table, developing in the process a definitive account of the American way of eating. 

The book contains a section on Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin’s organic farming operation in Swoope. 

Fiona Flynn presenting
Fiona Flynn, manager of the Morven Kitchen Garden, explains hoop house gardening to students in Paul Freedman’s Politics of Food course. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I am constantly uncovering new topics, new knowledge, new information. I’m teaching this topic because I think it is so important that I want to enlighten them, but every time I teach this class, I learn something from my students,” Freedman said.

“It turns out that we have one of the country’s biggest tilapia production facilities here in Virginia,” Freedman said. “There’s been such evolution, if not revolution, in the food system.”

The students bring their own interests to class, such as vertical urban farming, techniques in aquaculture and aquaponics.

Maya Koehn-Wu, a fourth-year urban planning major, said she has done a lot of work in food systems within her major and she recently joined the Sustainable Food Collaborative as an intern.

“I wanted to have the academic context to a lot of the work that I’ve been doing,” she said. “It’s really been a way to contextualize what I’ve learned, so far.”

From the course, Koehn-Wu has learned it is important to be connected to the land.

“Hearing Fiona Flynn talk about rotational crop growing and all of the different practices she uses, she’s in tune with the growing seasons and how the land operates,” Koehn-Wu said. “And in our class, we’ve been talking about the importance of not having to overuse synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and how people have industrialized the food system, rather than keep it localized.”

Class listening to lecture
Paul Freedman, a professor of politics, instructs his students in the Meeting Barn at Morven Farm. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Koehn-Wu said it is important to know where food comes from.

“There are systems beyond organic. And organic is not necessarily the end-all and be-all way to be sustainable,” she said. “I was pretty surprised at that. 

“Also, I come from a vegetarian family. They did it for health reasons and then environmental reasons, but it has been interesting to learn that there are good ways to farm animals. I didn’t understand how that could happen. But a lot of our readings have been on the importance for livestock to be a part of the farming process.”

Kyle Hagerstrom, a second-year student, took the course because of his interest in sustainability.

“It started when I took a gap year. I got the chance to go to Hawaii and see a lot of the agricultural practices that they have there,” he said. “I stayed at a couple of different farms around the different islands and I found it to be something that I was really into. I’m also into cooking. I have a big interest in food, how it relates to my own health and my life. This was a perfect opportunity to further pursue that interest of food sustainability.”

Hagerstrom, an intern at Morven Garden, said he was unaware of much of the business and industrial side of food before enrolling in the class.

“I always assumed that it was a little more fair, it wasn’t all uniform and one-dimensional in the way that I see it in this class,” he said.  “It seems like the farmers aren’t really winning in this scenario. It’s more to do with businesses.”

lecture outside at Morven
Politics of Food students get a lesson in vegetable cropping from Fiona Flynn, manager of the Morven Kitchen Garden. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Freedman said over the years, the students have been coming to the University more sophisticated about the environment.

“They’ve learned something about this in high school earth science class,” Freedman said. “They’ve read books, they’ve watched documentaries and they’ve been brought up to be very aware of that.”

Raised in Manhattan with no connection with nature or raising food, Freedman was introduced to the idea that food could be a political issue when he read Frances Moore Lappé’s “Diet for a Small Planet,” first published in the 1970s.

“It has been eye-opening, not just once, but 14 years of eye-opening and awakening and appreciating how fascinating and how important these questions are,” Freedman said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications