MONMOUTH, ILLINOIS (May 23, 2023) — Three square meals a day is a simple enough concept, but the reality about food is much more "problematic," according to Monmouth College anthropology professor Petra Kuppinger.
About a decade ago, Kuppinger piloted an "Anthropology of Food" course at the College, and she just completed teaching it for the first time as a full-semester offering this spring. The course takes a broad cultural, social, and economic perspective on what people eat, including engagement with such basic questions as who eats what and why, and how specific food and food consumption patterns define different cultures.
Kuppinger had the 21 students in her class complete several "purposeful, hands-on" food-related projects, including splitting into two groups and trying to make a meal for ten people spending less than $10. One group made macaroni and cheese, while the other served spaghetti.
"They liked the food, and we even had leftovers," said Kuppinger.
The students created a meal with no gluten or dairy products, selecting a beef stew recipe, and they also grew food in their Wallace Hall classroom. Tomatoes, hot peppers, and lettuce did the best in the makeshift garden, helped by the notoriously warm academic building.
"The classroom gets a good amount of sun, so there was a greenhouse effect there," said Kuppinger. "It was a worthwhile project, and I plan to continue it moving forward."
Another project saw the students present about their favorite recipe. By class vote, those 21 dishes were narrowed to a top seven, which the students prepared in groups of three, and served at the final class meeting.
"The food was really good," said Kuppinger. "Everybody liked it. It was a really nice event. Students can be so afraid of each other, so they need those community things to break down those walls."
Examining serious issues
But the class was by no means all fun, games, and Cajun chicken pasta. One of the texts Kuppinger had the students examine was Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Part of the book focuses on how the relentless drive for low costs has fostered a thriving modern-day slave trade in the United States.
"We spent time discussing the problematic nature of the global food system and creating a more just food landscape," said Kuppinger. "The environment is exploited, workers are exploited. It's very much a profit-oriented system. A dozen giant corporations hold very dramatic power in the industry, like Nestlé and General Mills. Nestlé has more than 2,000 food brands under its umbrella."
The students also read The Good Food Revolution, subtitled Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities. It helped inspire Kuppinger's attempt at an "edible classroom," which was her spin on the term "edible city," which is becoming more and more prevalent.
Two examples in Europe are Todmorden in England and Andernach in Germany. A story titled "Germany's Pioneer 'Edible City' on the Rhine" discusses how Andernach's city center has fruit and vegetable gardens that anyone can harvest for free. By making edible plants a feature of public space, the town is trying to change the way locals think about their food.
In Todmorden, a small group of people planted vegetables in "leftover, under-utilized, poorly-managed, and boring spaces." Such spaces, said a story about the initiative, "can be found in all towns and cities."
As part of the class, students had to make a short presentation on a solution to issues relating to food, and the "edible city" concept was one of those shared. Others included shopping locally at farmers markets and foraging, the "practice of going out and finding wild edible plants," wrote Leah Stephens ('24) of Hanna City, Illinois. The latter solution includes hunting for morel mushrooms, a popular seasonal activity in central Illinois.
The farmers market solution, wrote Josiah Carter ('26) of Sanford, Florida, helps reduce the carbon footprint of food production, lowers the "plethora of pesticides and chemicals" sprayed on food, and supports the local workforce.