Panel Discusses Food in Urban America

On Thursday, February 16 in the ALANA Cultural Center, Associate Professor of Sociology Christopher Henke, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies April Baptiste, Associate Professor of History Antonio Barrera, Assistant Professor of Economics Benjamin Anderson and Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Mark Stern reflected on their road trip through St. Louis, MO, Chicago, IL and Detroit, MI. On their trip, they visited urban farms, markets and bakeries to study how food has shaped the culture of these cities and how it will shape the future of these environments.

According to Henke, over the course of a few months, a group of faculty members developed a proposal to visit three cities to research food, community, culture and justice. This interdisciplinary group of faculty from various academic backgrounds would use this trip to create case studies for their respective research in these cities.

Stern explained the decision to visit the Midwest was made because of the area’s agricultural importance and its role in the meat industry. These cities’ histories of deindustrialization and segregation also made them key destinations because of prescient topics today such as food justice, which stems from a concern about a lack of access to food resources.

Members of the panel discussed how certain types of culinary anchors are placed in different neighborhoods in the Midwest to make real estate more attractive, such  as gourmet restaurants and grocery stores.

Baptiste noted the relevance this trip had to the course she teaches on environmental justice on campus.

“Getting involved [with this trip] that examined food justice in different cities was really interesting to me,” Baptiste said.

Barrera expressed that his motivation for research was grounded in the concept of cultivating and circulating knowledge through studying bread and bread making. 

“[I had] two interests here: one is the actual making of the bread, the other has to do with the knowledge that has to do with making the bread,” Barrera said.

Barrera was interested in how people could visit farms to learn how to become experts in the field, exemplifying the process of knowledge circulation.

“[I was] trying to understand how the absorption and circulation of knowledge is developed myself,” Barrera said. 

Anderson approached the trip and his research through an economic lens, exploring the alternatives to large-scale industrialization.

Reflecting on highlights of the trip, Stern discussed his amazement in how a group of people that didn’t really know each other could come together and travel, using their collective knowledge to better each other’s research and to ask critical questions. 

“The trip allowed me to learn how to listen and translate that listening into asking more insightful questions about things I’m interested in,” Stern said.

Baptiste said that the highlight of her trip was being able to see the food justice movement at work through “sweat equity,” referring to the group’s volunteer work at a farm in each city visited. This allowed her to fully embrace working on the farm and to gain real life experiences, such as growing strawberries.

“For me this trip really reiterated that food justice is real,” Baptiste said. “I read a lot about food justice in my classes, but until you go in the real world it doesn’t really click.” 

She discussed how certain people get greater access to restaurants and grocery stores than others, and noted her observations about the leadership of food justice work. She noted that white people are often the leaders of these organizations but that the communities that need food justice are

predominantly black and brown.

Stern raised the question of why certain organizations are more funded than others, and contemplated how an organization can do radical work if it is funded by people that benefit from certain practices.

Panelists discussed challenges they faced, including the importance of being honest and humble and trying to offer help where they could. They also used social media to make the leaders of some organizations better known to the public. Although the issue of ethics is a matter of concern, the researchers felt that listening to people tell their stories was a good way to approach their research.

Sophomore William Bingo spoke to his reception of the panel and their findings.

“I think it’s interesting to see how Colgate professors expand their research into other communities outside the classroom,” Bingo said.

Junior Revée Needham found the discussion particularly poignant, as it struck a personal chord for her.

“I was happy to see that they went to the Midwest to look at food issues because I’m from the Midwest and I never really thought about food justice issues in relation to where I’m from,” Needham said.