“Why do you eat what you eat?” I ask my students. After a long pause filled with students giving me bewildered looks someone says, “because it tastes good?” I press them to dig deeper in hopes that they will see a connection to the social world, but almost always they are unable to. My students are staunch believers that what they eat is purely a matter of choice and even an expression of personal freedom. Sure, they say, your family may develop your taste for certain dishes as a child, but that is just your family eating what tastes good to them. Nothing sociological going on here.
Food is a powerful sociological issue because it connects our physical bodies with nature, the economy, and indirectly with every social institution. Food production is public policy, a cornerstone of our economy, and always present in the media. Simply put, food is culture. And yet many students never think twice about it. Thus making it a prime target for teaching sociology.
“Divided We Eat” by Lisa Miller is a Newsweek article that provides students with a great introduction to the issues around food and social class1. The article talks with epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski about the social factors that influence our food choices. As we discuss the article as a class I ask my student to examine food from a symbolic interactionist perspective and my students quickly draw connections between what we eat and how we express our class position.
“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”-Miller, Newsweek
After our discussion I pass out an activity I created (download pdf here) that has my students create a food journal for a day and analyze it. Many students were now able to see the connection between what they eat today, what they ate growing up, and their social class position.
1. Thanks to Chad Gesser (@profgesser) for Tweeting this article into my world.