“Alternatives in a changing food world”

Continuing this academic year’s theme of discussions at Macalester surrounding food and its complexities, this years American Studies Conference, entitled “Alternatives in a Changing Food World,” took place this past week on Feb. 21 to Feb. 22. Its keynote speaker was Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in American Studies at the University of Maryland.

Professor Williams-Forson gave the keynote address to the conference at 6:30 pm last Thursday, and also participated in a panel and luncheon the next day with other scholars, activists and Macalester students. Her presentation lasted roughly an hour, and was attended by American Studies students and faculty, as well as other students and members of the surrounding community.

After a reception of kebabs and lemonade, Professor Williams-Forson’s address touched on cultural food-ways, traditional and alternative conceptions of food justice, bargain markets like Dollar Tree and the work of contemporary food justice peers such as Michael Pollan. Some classes prepared for the conference by reading Professor Williams-Forson’s book Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power, a book that examines the ways in which black women historically used certain foods, such as chicken, to define and empower a sense of identity.

Professor Williams-Forson drew on history and culture to point out that different ethnic, racial and cultural groups in America have very different attitudes toward “the land” and their historic relationships to it, and remarked that Michael Pollan’s famous quote (“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”) has very different implications for people whose ancestors existed outside of a normative white socioeconomic status.

“I thought [her talk] added an interesting dimension to earlier discussions we’ve had about food justice, such as the International Roundtable,” said Madeline Spolin ‘15. “There was a cultural lens that has not been as present in earlier discussions.”

Professor Williams-Forson’s talk provoked questions that had implications for multiple cultural interpretations of seemingly objective concepts such as health and nutrition. Professor Williams-Forson asserted that, while mainstream discussions of alternative food systems were valuable, academia and people at large must bear in mind the multiplicity of experiences of the American people. She emphasized the importance of refraining from dictating that any certain social or cultural groups food-ways are inherently destructive, and encouraged awareness of the capabilities and limitations everyone brings to the proverbial food justice table.