Food issues and environmentalism remain hot topics at Hamilton, as exhibited by the well-attended panel hosted by The Levitt Center Sustainability Program, “Envisioning the Future of Food.” Panelists included scholars of sociology, geography and political science.
While the overall theme was the future of food, each panelist approached this issue differently. To start, Professor of Rural Sociology at Penn State University Clare Hinrichs discussed transitional management theory and the relevance of a multi-level perspective on socio-technological change. “Change happens in a niche arena” she said, highlighting how a complex system such as food and agriculture can be divided into individual and collective actions and then by direct and indirect challenges to the food system. Hinrichs said individual action is the gateway to collective action, and food itself is a powerful collector, stating “We’re at an exciting moment. Food and agriculture do not exist in siloes.”
Evan Weissman, assistant professor of food studies at Syracuse University, studies food- related issues in urban settings. He introduced a Syracuse- based food planning project that uses participatory methods and grassroots efforts to address food access disparities. This project examines the current assets in the Syracuse area, and seeks ways to increase opportunity. Weissman took the audience through several assets of the area, such as the busy Saturday markets, but said there is room for stronger social and economic wellbeing through fostering community relationships.
Adelphi University Associate Professor of Political Science Margaret Gray focuses on the relationship between labor and local food systems, particularly in New York. She said that the local food movement is heavily romanticized, and consumers are buying an idea spread by “food evangelists.” America has a long romance with agrarianism with the “red barns and rolling hills,” and Gray emphasized the divide between the visual aspects of agriculture and the actual experience of agriculture.
Gray has interviewed undocumented farm workers and has noted that the working conditions on local farms parallels those of industrial farms. She said labor in both scenarios encompasses a lack of respect, fear of deportation, low pay and long hours. Gray ended her talk positively, saying that consumers demanded local food and they can similarly demand a food system that supports a healthy labor system.
The talk was well received and attendees actively participated in the question section asking about environmentalism, community involvement on and off campus, and economics. There was a healthy discussion of the divide between “good” and “bad” in the food system, with Weissman leaving the audience with strong advice, “It is time to interrogate what we think is obvious and good…we all engage in the food system.”