ClassAction: Digesting the importance of food 

By Russ Cooper

Hands up for all who remember being told by our mothers to eat everything on your plate. Now, hands up to everyone who could say where that food came from or why your mom made her meatloaf the way she did.

Orange juice comes from Florida? Magnifying glass

Orange juice comes from Florida?

If you answered only to the former, you might want to serve yourself a plateful of Communication Studies Professor Liz Miller's class, You Are What You Eat (and Drink).

"Most of us consume food without thinking about it. We're trying to connect the dots between the food we eat everyday and where it comes from, what are the implications and who we are."

This is the first time this one-semester 435 class has been offered and is feeding the minds of 22 eager students. Besides readings and film screenings, the first of three major assignments was to take a photo of what was inside their fridge at home, analyze the contents and try to understand how far it had travelled. Several students went above and beyond, crafting reproduction of their refrigerators, complete with pullout food bins. "It was as if I staged a science fair," Miller adds.

Professor Liz Miller (left) and student enjoy the class potluck of family recipes. Magnifying glass

Professor Liz Miller (left) and student enjoy the class potluck of family recipes.

The second assignment, entitled Follow a Recipe, was a potluck where students were to prepare a family recipe and discuss the role food plays in shaping identity, learning about the ingredients' production in the process.

"Food is connected to politics, the global food chain, labour processes, as well as transportation and oil consumption. But there's also identity politics; recipes are like a cultural DNA," says Miller. "Students had to chat with parents, grandparents about how to make a dish they had perhaps been eating all their lives."

The third assignment has students preparing an essay or video about an alternative food player in Montreal – eg. an organic farmer, rooftop gardens, a slow food restaurant – and will be due at the end of semester.

Sound a bit more like a sociological study rather than communications research? It's a bit of both, says Miller, but there's a difference.

"There are many ways to communicate. Eating is a communicative act. If you're making a meal or taking a Polaroid, you're engaging with audiences and bring a heightened awareness of the message," says Miller, who will moderate the afternoon session, at the President's Conference on April 6.

Student Naomi Mark created this poster for her first assignment analyzing the food in her fridge. Magnifying glass

Student Naomi Mark created this poster for her first assignment analyzing the food in her fridge.

Inspired by King Vidor's 1934 film Our Daily Bread depicting the Great Depression (required viewing for the students), the course is particularly well-timed in light of this current economic uncertainty and the inevitable turmoil surrounding global food production and the shift towards movements of heightened appreciation of food, such as fair-trade commerce or the 20-mile diet—an element Miller clearly intends to keep on the burner.

"Food and water scarcity is a reality. I think we're touching on a nerve that's really impacting this generation," she says. "Every single day people face decisions about food. Conscious eating can be an act of everyday resistance. "

She credits Concordia with being at the forefront of sustainability movements. In particular, the People's Potato.

"I feel there's a real appetite among students to get involved and change the assumptions, the patterns of a corporate food industry that ultimately won't be able to feed the majority."

While issues tackled and awareness raised may be the meat of the matter for the class, Miller says getting to know her students in a uniquely personal way has been, well, the cherry on top.

"Suddenly, it was a window into understanding the lives of my students. I've learned so much about these students it has made me wish I knew my students this well for every class I've taught," she says. "Food quickly gets to who you are."


Concordia University