Food Systems and Sustainability

In White Mountain’s elective course, Food Systems and Sustainability, students discuss some tough questions about the human relationship to food production. How do environments shape food systems? And how do food systems shape environments? The course begins by examining how human societies are defined by the way they get their food, studying hunter-gathering, pastoralist, agrarian and commercial industrial societies. The course weaves in the fundamental guiding principles of sustainability, and investigates alternative food production systems such as permaculture and small-scale agriculture. It also looks at the historical role food has played in the evolution of human societies and the social, environmental and economic impacts of the current industrial food production system.

Mirroring a collegiate level class in more ways than one, students are encouraged to think critically about the relationships between humanity, the environment and the way we get our food. The course, which can be taken to fulfill White Mountain’s sustainability requirement, uses an online university-level Human Ecology textbook through UC Davis and other supplementary texts from a variety of sources, to answer questions around how our current food system has been set in motion. “Ultimately, I think that one goal of this course is to frame the importance of our food systems in how humans have organized themselves socially and politically over the course of our tenure on the planet,” says Renee Blacken, science teacher and Chair of the Sustainability Studies Department.

Centered around the idea that food related technologies are influenced by and can have a great impact on the environment, one project looked at one of the most influential technologies in the history of our relationship to food: domestication.  Split into groups, students prepared presentations on key crops that were early domesticates–sugarcane, millet, rice, corn, wheat, potato–traced their trajectory across the globe and examined their impact on present-day society.  Renee says it best: “As socially responsible individuals, we ought to look at the edible history of as many societies as we can. If you try to tell the history of humanity without telling the story of food – you are missing the real story.  How we get our food is how we organize ourselves socially – you have to look at the ingredients of life to truly understand the nuances of the lives that we lead.”

Equal parts academic investigation and hands-on learning, the course seeks to involve students in their food systems and reconnect them to their food in a system where many of us are no longer directly involved in food production.  It seeks to break down the degrees of separation between producing food and living day-to-day that pervade industrial societies, and educate students that food choices are also choices about environmental well-being and social justice.

To quote Renee, “If we are truly going to educate our students to be responsible citizens of a changing planet, we must re-connect them to their food systems.  When we think about the essence of what keeps people alive and the far reaching implications of our food choices, it is absurd to think that it could be otherwise.”

Check out our Course Guide and other sustainability course offerings here.

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