Feminist and Queer Food Politics Student Symposium: A Smorgasbord on Sustenance

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Matt McGee

Last semester, students of Dr. Carly Thomsen’s SWGS 308 course hosted a symposium to publicly present their class research projects. And although “symposium” in Greek translates as “to drink together,” the focus of this meeting was entirely on food – in particular, “The Future of Food: Feminist, Queer, and Critical Approaches,” as Dr. Thomsen’s course was appropriately titled.

Throughout the Fall semester, her students worked to understand the food systems in place around the world and here at Rice (what we eat, where it comes from, how it’s prepared, who prepares it, etc.). They then challenged the industrial aspects of these systems, and also questioned the alternative food movements (e.g. organic farming, locally-sourced food, plant-based diets, etc.) that are sometimes too quickly put forward as panacea to the problems created by industrial food production. Along the way, students utilized Feminist and Queer theory to gain a unique perspective on the way food affects the social realities of individuals, and did so with a commitment to social justice that is inherent to these theories.

Feminist and Queer theory are not only relevant in discussions surrounding gender and sexual identities, but rather are useful when questioning what we consider normal, and how that sense of normalcy came to exist. As Elaine Shen, editor of the symposium’s zine, stated, “These bodies of scholarship offer ways of approaching the world. They insist we examine how ideas about gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, and geography are produced. It turns out that many ideas we have about food are rooted in assumptions about these very ways of experiencing the world. In order to think about food differently, we need to think about a lot of things differently.”

Thinking differently is exactly what Dr. Thomsen’s students did as they developed their research projects. One such project, “Surveying Servery Perceptions” by Erik Loewen, “gauged Rice students’ perceptions of food on campus and knowledge of food politics,” and ultimately found that “students are generally curious about where their food comes from, and about social justice issues, despite having essentially no idea where Rice food really comes from.” Additionally, Erik’s project revealed a perceived “lack of adequate labeling” of servery food for students with dietary restrictions.

Interestingly though, a project by Meredith Glaubach and Karina Farias, titled “Instead of Proselytizing, Labeling,” sought to partially remedy this lack of labeling by collaborating with H&D to bring Local Food Labels to Rice’s serveries. The pair worked alongside H&D managers, servery chefs, and Rice’s sustainability director to create placards that chefs could place in front of their local dishes. The goal of the project, according to Meredith, was to “get people to start thinking about their food – where does it come from, how does it get there, who cooks it – and making choices…that will reflect what they believe in.”

These projects were just two of the eight presented at the student symposium, which was conducted with support from Rice’s Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning as well as the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. The other projects include “What is a Food Feminist Queer Politic?,” “Video: Do You Think About Where Your Food Comes From?,” “De-Mystifying Local Food at Rice,” “Eat This, Not That!,” “Reimagining Servery Interactions,” and “A Waste of Rice.”

Encapsulating the entire class’s work is the zine produced by Elaine Shen, titled “The Real Food Network of Rice.” Later this semester, copies of the zine will be distributed across campus, and will provide a snapshot of the student symposium which was the culmination of a semester’s worth of research and thought.