‘I lie to them’: Food History as Labor History in the Classroom

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When I decided to start teaching a class on the history of food in 2013 I did so for one primary reason. As a graduate student at Brown I had read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and it changed the way I looked at food. But as transformative as the book was for me there was always a part of me that was uncomfortable with the story it told. At the time, I was writing my dissertation about the farmworker movement in the Pacific Northwest and the question about Pollan’s work that kept nagging me was: “Where were the workers?” How could you write an entire book about food and the food industry without talking about the workers that pick, slaughter, process, can, ship, stock, cook, and serve the food? Of course, the faces of those workers are increasingly immigrant and brown and that opens a whole other set of questions that went unanswered in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

That question led me to develop my own syllabus for a food class where I could put the lives of workers front and center. But I found that it was impossible to do that without also talking about the effects of colonization, slavery, imperialism, neo-colonialism, and globalization. I still wanted to deal with a lot of those questions about identity, meaning, and authenticity but while I found the questions about consumption interesting, these questions became the dominant narrative of food history for a while. I came to call the class I developed “Local Harvest, Global Industry: History of the Production and Consumption of Food.” The production part of that title was enormously important for me. I wanted this class to be about work.

At a conference panel I recently attended about the future of working class history, many of the panelists and audience members expressed dismay at the poor turnout of students for their labor history classes. The conversation turned toward strategies for getting more students interested in labor. During the conversation I told them “I lie to them. I offer a class called the history of food but it’s about workers, it’s about imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and globalization. Every semester my class over enrolls, I never have a problem getting students to take my class.”  Whenever I am in a social setting and I tell people that I teach a class on the history of food they are immediately interested and begin asking questions about the class. It’s not that much different with students. They think they are taking a class about eating, about consumption, or about their identity. I of course am interested in teaching students about identity and consumption but they are interwoven into the fabric of labor history.

I almost always have self-described vegans, vegetarians, gourmands, and nutritionists in my class who are very invested in the consumption question as it relates to their own health, tastes, and social conscience. I imagine on most campuses a class on food would bring out the “foodies.” But being in the Central Valley of California, I also have the children of farmers and farmworkers in my class who are invested in very different questions. The diversity of the class has led to some of the most engaging discussions I have ever had in a classroom. The debates about paying fast food workers a living wage takes on a decidedly different tone when many of the students have worked or currently work in the industry.

My assignments are geared towards asking students to think about the work it takes to get the meal on their plates. In an assignment that I call the “Labor Anatomy of a Meal” I ask the students to prepare a meal of their choice and to do a labor history of one of the ingredients. I ask the students to look at who toils in the fields, factories, and restaurants that provide their sustenance, how has the production of food changed over time, who used to produce and who does the job now, and why has it changed. As you can imagine I have received my fair share of papers on the western demand for quinoa and the effect on indigenous land and identity that follows.  The unintended side-effect of this assignment is that I also learn a lot about the labor history of certain food products from the work that students do.

The University of California, Merced is a unique place to teach a class on food. While we are in the heart of agribusiness in the United States, the Central Valley has long been one of the most underserved communities in the country with striking health disparities. That reality is no different on our campus. Four in ten students in the UC system are food insecure and that number balloons to one in four at UC Merced. The first year I taught the class (2013) their final project was to create ten entries into a food map of Merced County. The collaborative final revealed that there were almost no food options within a one-mile radius of the campus. Their only choices were the school cafeteria and the university operated convenience stores. Many of their off-campus options were fast food restaurants, and no grocery stores operated on the south side predominately Mexican side of town.

But this kind of assignment only worked because we understood the historical forces that created the inequalities that exist today. I continue to develop assignments that highlight the historical roots of these disparities so students do not continually fall into the trap of consumerist (individual) solutions to a collective problem. Every year I tweak the course to try and include some of the new material that is being produced by historians as production has now reached a dizzying pace. But more importantly I try to develop more assignments and lectures that focus on the labor and the lives of laborers that have historically been responsible for the sustenance of humanity.

Dr. Mario Sifuentez is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Merced. His book Of Forests and Fields (Rutgers University Press, 2016) analyzes factors that brought ethnic Mexican immigrants to the Pacific Northwest and the ways in which immigrants responded to the labor conditions by demanding both labor rights and citizenship rights. He is currently at work on his second project on water, food, and farmworkers in the California’s Central Valley.
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