Writing to Explore Food Systems and Food Justice

Kathleen Byrd
South Puget Sound Community College


This is a theme-based English 101 course that explores our food consumption habits and connects those habits to local and global food systems in order to understand issues of food justice personally, in our local community, and globally. In this course, students conduct a personal diet analysis, investigate a food commodity from their regular diets, and reconsider their diet choices based on their learning. The course includes community service at the local food bank and regular contemplative practices to deal with the overwhelm that can arise with learning about complex issues.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is a version of English 101 which is an introductory course that is required for all students to graduate with a certificate or transfer degree. The prerequisite for English 101 is placement into English 101 or completion of pre-college English course work.

Course Content:

In addition to the general content of English 101 that includes a scaffolded sequence of academic writing assignments, this course introduces food-related writing ranging from essays that discuss nutrition, food politics, social justice, animal rights, and environmental impacts of food production. Students become immersed in and participate in a conversation about food that moves from the personal to the political. Students investigate a food commodity to explore their own connection to the food system. They share their investigative work with classmates. We participate in two days of service learning as a class to engage with food justice on a local level. Students end the quarter reevaluating their own diets and reporting their learning to classmates.

Course Goals:

In addition to English 101 goals, the big aims of this course are:

1. Students recognize themselves and their diet choices within complex social and ecological systems.

2. Students learn strategies to deal with overwhelm and anxiety that can arise when they faced complex issues that seem beyond their control' these include service learning and contemplative practices.

3. Students are able to articulate dietary options that benefit their own health and see their choices as positively impacting the social and ecological systems of which they are a part.

Course Features:

The key features of this course include the sequence of writing assignments that move from the personal to the political and back to the personal, class service-learning days, and regular contemplative practice that includes reading and reflection upon a poem, engaging in a moment of silence, and writing on a reflective prompt.

About the contemplative practices: I begin each class session with up to 10 minutes of contemplative practice. Here's what I do: On the first day of class, I share with students my own reflective practice as well as few points about recent research related to the benefits of mindfulness practices for learning. (It's easy to find short articles on this topic that are accessible to students.) I usually start each class period by sharing a couple things that I've been thinking about that relate to our learning, our topic, food, my own contemplative practice, or a reflection on teaching. This establishes a reciprocity of reflection. I then ask students to get comfortable in their seats, by leaning into the chair back, setting aside anything they're holding or fidgeting with, and relaxing the gaze or closing the eyes. I remind them to connect with the breath by counting it, slowing it down, or focusing on it. Then, I either set the timer for a minute of silence or I read a poem and then set the timer for a minute. When the timer ends, I write a prompt on the board. The prompts are simply for reflection and range from "I'm expecting...." to "When I think of my future, I ...." or "I've been trying ...". I collect their writing and read them. I sometimes return them with comments, but I often just read and return them. Sometimes, I will not collect them and I'll let them know so they can write for just themselves, with no audience in mind. Sometimes I ask if anyone wants to share.

Students have, for the most part, been very receptive to these practices. Many students report to me that they're using mindfulness in other areas of their lives, before taking tests, etc. Of course, I do have students who are resistant. I note the resistance and let them know it's normal to be hesitant or resistant, but ask that they give it a try. I let them know that they don't need to follow my guidance, but they do need to stay silent for a minute and participate in the writing. Sometimes student laugh and I don't discourage it. I talk about laughter and how important it is for us to play, to laugh out loud, and to laugh at ourselves.

I am always open to questions about my own contemplative practices and I share things that come up for me, that I'm working on, and that I'm learning about through yoga and meditation.

I am a member of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) and appreciate the resources and conferences they provide to support this work with students.

The major writing assignments of the course are:

1. Personal diet tracking and nutritional analysis.
2. Rhetorical analysis to understand the purposes of food writers.
3. Investigative essay on a food commodity.
4. Community engagement and food justice report.
5. Personal diet analysis revisit with research.
6. End-of-quarter reflection and presentation.

Course Philosophy:

The underlying philosophy is that the personal is political, so the sequence of assignments is designed to get students to consider their own diets and to understand that their food decisions about what to eat are ultimately choices, not defaults. Another basic teaching philosophy is that we must offer students tools to deal with the confusion and overwhelm that often arises when we are learning about complex issues that seem to have no easy solutions. We cannot simply bring awareness and knowledge to students; we must also bring tools for personal empowerment to sustain intellectual and creative engagement with the issues facing our world. Community engagement (service learning) and contemplative practices are both tools for dealing with the overwhelm that students often experience when learning about the issues we face in the world together.

Both the service learning and the contemplative practices foster a classroom culture of introspection, good will, and community. In their writing, students often open up to me about their concerns, fears, and struggles in life. It's important that students know they are seen and heard, and this is a way to engage a conversation about their lives outside of the classroom in a way that is just between me and each student. I respond regularly, but not always, to each students' writing. Sometimes I make referrals to counseling services on campus. Students have responded positively to both the service learning and to the contemplative practices. When I started the contemplative practices years ago, I was reluctant, and didn't want to impose on students. Then students would tell me they missed it if I skipped a day; some told me that it made a big difference in managing stress and in dealing with difficult emotions in other areas of their lives. I recently decided to have our first service day early in the quarter (I used to wait until after midterm) because I noticed how much the students bonded during the activity. I also noticed that students felt uplifted being part of something greater than themselves.

The theme of food is a relevant one that also fosters personal engagement. According to a 2015 study, half of all community college students are struggling with food and/or housing insecurity (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, and Eisenberg). This means that teaching about food in a community college classroom is not an abstract concept. The material cannot be presented as a problem that students need to solve, but rather as a system in which students are a part, and the knowledge gained has the potential to be personally empowering.

The assignment sequence is designed to begin with the personal and move to the political through readings about food -- nutrition, food politics, food justice, animal rights, and environmental impacts. The students come back to the personal at the end of the quarter when they revisit their diets with the knowledge gained. They present what they learned to their peers and we share in a potluck feast.


I use a porftolio assessment at the end of the quarter. The portoflio asks students to write about the various course features and describe what they learned and how the assignemnts impacted their growth and understanding.


Syllabus for English 101: Food theme (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 36kB Jun27 17)

Teaching Materials:

1. Food Commodity Analysis: This is the major research assignment for the class. It is introduced mid-quarter after students have read essays and articles about food systems and food justice and after students have conducted a personal diet inventory and analysis. Students investigate a food item that is a regular part of their diet, consider issues related to food justice with the food commodity, and then write a paper explaining what they learned about the food system through their research.

2. Diet analysis revisit. At the end of the quarter, students revisit their diet and consider ways that they might improve their diets to improve the nutrition of their diets. They also reflect on ways that the course content and activities may have changed their diet choices.

3. Community Engagement report. This paper is due near the end of the quarter and asks students to reflect on our service learning project and to make connections to the course content and the themes of food justice and nutrition.

Food Commodity Analysis Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 210kB Jun27 17) Diet Analysis Revisit Essay (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Jun27 17) Community Engagement Report (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Jul7 17)

References and Notes:

Bauer, Holly (Ed.) (2014) Food Matters. A Bedford Spotlight Reader. Bedford Saint Martins.

Foster Wallace, David (2004) "Consider the Lobster" Gourmet Magazine http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/consider_the_lobster.html

Goldrick-Rab, Broton, Eisenberg. (2015) "Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates" Wisconsin Hope Lab http://wihopelab.com/publications/Wisconsin_HOPE_Lab_Hungry_To_Learn.pdf

Here is a partial list of poems that I regularly use for reflection in class:

1. Rumi "Two kinds of intelligence". (I always use this poem the first day of class and we talk about the two kinds of intelligence described in the poem and think of examples of each type from our own experiences.

2. Stephen Dunn "Empathy"

3. Pablo Neruda "Keeping Quiet"

4. Mary Oliver "Wild Geese"

5. Naima "Being Human"

6. Lucien Stryk "Cherries" *This one is about food and I read it when we begin discussing food justice.

7. Baron Wormser "A Quiet Life" *also about food and good to pair with understanding food systems.

8. David Whyte "Start Close in"

9. Naomi Shihab Nye "Kindness"