Col(LAB) 1.0 Food Matters: Risk and Privilege

Tuesday, Jun 5, 2018
by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

FoodAnthropology, the blog of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, participated in Col(LAB) 1.0, with writer Annie Sheng recording her experience:

We experience the world and our food with all our senses, so why not get tactile as we discuss risk and privilege in relation to food? Princeton University’s Col(LAB) 1.0 — a product of the synergetic confluence of collaborations between the Program in American Studies, the CST StudioLab and the Princeton Food and Agriculture Initiative — immersed participants in the intersecting spatial realms of classrooms, farmers’ markets, food pantries and dining hall kitchens to bring together various perspectives on pressing food issues through a venture involving “creativity and the unexpected,” said Anne Cheng, Professor of English and Director of American Studies. While the concepts of risk and privilege were left relatively open for interpretation, through interactive experiences, participants came together to understand how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food. Participants included faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, staff, dining chefs, nutritionists and experts from within and beyond Princeton University.

The three-day workshop started off with a visit to the Princeton Farmers' Market. Participant teams were tasked with purchasing food for a family of four with a limited budget. After interacting with fresh produce vendors, cheesemongers, various sellers and campus dining representatives at the farmers’ market, participants took up pens and texts and gathered to discuss readings on risk and privilege. We prepared analyses that interrogated issues of food production technologies, interspecies dependencies and slow food, drawing from writing by Allison Carruth, Anna Tsing, Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière.

We were asked to bring a food-related artifact, something that spoke of our own relationship to food to create a jumping-off point for engaging in the questions of risk and privilege. Such personal artifacts ranged from coffee to eggs to soy-based cosmetics, as well as non-edibles such as a food scale, a mortar and pestle and a reusable water bottle. We talked of preservation and mechanical reproduction encapsulated in a can of cranberry sauce, the entitlement entailed in a jar of gourmet polenta and the caloric emptiness and capitalistic symbolism of a can of Diet Coke. For example, Tessa L. Desmond noted, “Soda companies have changed their marketing strategies to target low income neighborhoods, and kids in particular. Now it’s kind of like the suburbs. We’re vacating fast food and soda like we’ve vacated the cities for the suburbs…” The central concepts of privilege and risk framed these diverse personal food items, and our conversation considered the scales of safe-to-dangerous, pure-to-toxic, sustainable-to-polluting, healthy-to-unhealthy and delicious-to-unpalatable.

Col(LAB) Discussion

Photo by Annie Sheng

The conversation also turned to issues of culture and identity. What risks might be inherent in transmitting generationally the sense of culture through the vessel of a preserved egg — with some packages labeled lead-free and some, noticeably, not? How can and do ideas about maintaining a sense of cultural identity trump potential health risks?

We met for the events of Day Two in front of Nassau Presbyterian Church for an introduction to the Arm In Arm food pantry and the services provided to help individual households and families achieve food security. Becca Jensen Compton, community engagement coordinator, and Cecilia Avila, homelessness prevention coordinator, led us through the workings of the pantry and explained how Arm In Arm helps its clients achieve stability. While the presentation and Q&A demonstrated the commitment to the community in providing not only food but also a sense of security and social support to confront challenges with dignity, one of the biggest takeaways was how geographical stereotypes are often misleading. Even in a place like Princeton, which at a superficial glance can easily be labeled as affluent, there are those in the community confronting issues of insecurity, risk and precarity (especially given such high costs of living). Insecurity is not something that is only present somewhere else — it exists in every community. Another salient issue discussed was the absorption of surplus by the less privileged. While items like cranberry sauce find their way to pantries off-season, the pantry endeavors to provide items that have value to its clients throughout the year, such as fresh produce, beans and meat.

On Day Three, we put down pens in favor of aprons to confront nutrition, constraints and choice through working in the stimulating environment of the dining hall kitchen. We integrated farmers’ market purchases with surplus food diverted from the dining hall. Campus chefs and nutritionists guided us through the process of creating a meal under limited budget and time constraints, while keeping in mind notions of nutrition, nourishment and taste. We cooked up falafel from leftover lentil soup; tossed pasta; sweet potato soup; apple tarts; melon-topped rusks; and flavorful salads from leftover bulgogi. Throughout the process we asked ourselves: what could work for a family? What is not only edible but tasty? What kinds of food restrictions must we keep in mind? We faced constraints from which we had to make decisions and were aided with invaluable advice from campus food experts.

Col(LAB) participants in the dining hall

Photo by Annie Sheng

The hands-on collaborative cooking and subsequent act of communal consumption marked the end of the three-day interconnected whirlwind of food activities that exposed us to critical issues of food risk and privilege in acts of production, distribution and consumption. The Col(LAB) experience reaches beyond disciplinary fields to work across and through boundaries to ask questions about industrialization, class, identity and culture while engaged with scholars in the humanities and sciences, food experts, community members, food procurers, providers and purveyors. We immersed ourselves in procurement, awareness, production, discussion and commensality — and came out more thoughtful and more committed to continue to explore the vital issues of food, risk and privilege across the food system. Particularly for my own research, as I analyze global wheat trade, the baking industry and popular consumption in East Asia, these experiences remind and urge me to probe deeply into the kinds of risks and privileges entailed at every level of the food system, down to individual expressions of desire, choice and preference, for example, when consumers confront a shelf of prepackaged breads in a convenience store aisle, or alternatively, a rustic wooden display of just-baked breads at a French-style boulangerie.

First published in slightly different form at FoodAnthropology.