Women's Studies 102S: Food, Farming, and Feminism

June 1, 2010
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

In 2006, children sitting at dinner tables across America rejoiced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had announced a multistate outbreak of E. coli in several brands of spinach and recommended that it not be purchased or served. In 2009, these same children were most likely disappointed to discover that because of another food-borne disease, Salmonella, their lunchboxes were lacking the classic peanut-butter sandwiches that are as synonymous with school as red apples and sharpened pencils.

Kathy Rudy M.Div. '89, Ph.D. '93, who first taught "Food, Farming, and Feminism" in the spring of 2008, says that interest in the subject has become more widespread since the publication of Michael Pollan's best-selling book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The convergence of the message of Pollan's book, increasing occurrences of food-borne diseases in places you would not normally look, such as spinach and peanut butter, and the growing recognition of diet-related health problems serves as the course's foundation, prompting the students to investigate how we define ourselves in relation to what we consume every day.

Divided into three sections—"the local and the global," "the animal question," and "food, culture, and identity"—the seminar allows students to examine from multiple vantage points the complex issues surrounding today's food industry. Rudy often incorporates thirty to forty-five minutes of film in her classes, pulling from a rich selection of food-related documentaries that have emerged in the past several years. Moreover, she invites local sustainable farmers or artisans such as cheese makers to talk to the class, and the semester may include a field trip to a local dairy, hog, or vegetable farm, the Durham Farmer's Market, or, as happened one year, even a slaughterhouse.

The Pig Who Sang to the Moon

Rudy wants students to realize the increasing role of large corporations in their diet, a profound shift from the experience of their parents. "We have been sold a bill of goods that we have a wider choice than our parents, but we have much less choice than thirty years ago," she says, using the example of a cereal aisle that offers thirty varieties of cereal but only two choices of grain: genetically modified wheat or soy. She also notes the dire effects that monocultural farms have had in developing countries, leading to the degradation of soil, water, and forests, with most of the repercussions affecting women responsible for feeding their families.

The closer we can get to the farmer, she notes, the healthier we and the planet will be. Farming and food production used to be an art, says Rudy. "It's now a conveyor belt, an industry. We need to regain that knowledge [of] who we are in relation to the way things [in the natural world] fit together."

Professor: M. Kathy Rudy is an associate professor of women's studies. She is working on a project that builds a new approach to animal advocacy based on feminist, postmodern, and Earth-friendly principles and themes.

Prerequisites: None

Readings: Twelve nonfiction books by various authors, including Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat; Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the table: On Farming and Food; Jonathan Saffron Foer, Eating Animals; Catherine Friend, The Compassionate Carnivore; Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Assignments: Two eight- to ten-page papers in response to topics related to plants, animals, and human nature and gender.