Col(LAB) on Food, Risk and Privilege

by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

We experience the world and our food with all our senses, so why not get tactile as we discuss risk and privilege in relation to food? Princeton University’s Col(LAB)—a product of the synergetic confluence of collaborations between the Program in American Studies, the CST StudioLab and the Princeton Food and Agriculture Initiative—immerses participants in the intersecting spatial realms of classrooms, farmer’s markets, food pantries and dining hall kitchens to bring together various perspectives on pressing food issues through a venture involving “creativity and the unexpected,” said Anne Cheng, Professor of English and Director of American Studies. While the concepts of risk and privilege were left relatively open for interpretation, through interactive experiences, participants come together to understand how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food. Participants included faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, staff, dining chefs, nutritionists and experts from within and beyond Princeton University.

The three-day workshop started off with a visit to the farmer’s market. Participant teams were tasked with purchasing food for a family of four within limited budget constraints. After interacting with fresh produce vendors, cheesemongers, various sellers and campus dining representatives at the farmer’s market, participants sported pens and texts and gathered to discuss readings on risk and privilege. We prepared analyses that interrogated issues of food production technologies, interspecies dependencies and slow food, drawing from writing by Allison Carruth, Anna Tsing, Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière.

We all were asked to bring a food-related artifact, something that speaks of our own relationship to food to create a jumping off point for engaging in the questions of risk and privilege. Such personal artifacts ranged from coffee to eggs to soy-based cosmetics, as well as non-edibles such as a food scale, a mortar and pestle and a reusable water bottle. We talked of preservation and mechanical reproduction encapsulated in a can of cranberry sauce, the entitlement entailed in a jar of gourmet polenta and the caloric emptiness and capitalistic symbolism of a can of Diet Coke. For example, Tessa L. Desmond noted, “Soda companies have changed their marketing strategies to target low income neighborhoods, and kids in particular. Now it’s kind of like the suburbs. We’re vacating fast food and soda like we’ve vacated the cities for the suburbs…” The central concepts of privilege and risk framed these diverse personal food items and our conversation considered the scales of safe-to-dangerous, pure-to-toxic, sustainable-to-polluting, healthy-to-unhealthy and delicious-to-unpalatable.


The conversation also turned to issues of culture and identity. What risks might be inherent in transmitting generationally the sense of culture through the vessel of a preserved egg—with some packages labeled lead-free and some, noticeably, not? How can and do ideas about maintaining a sense of cultural identity trump potential health risks?

We met for the events of Day Two in front of Nassau Presbyterian Church for an introduction to the Arm In Arm food pantry and the services provided to help individual households and families achieve food security. Becca Jensen Compton, community engagement coordinator, and Cecilia Avila, homelessness prevention coordinator, led us through the workings of the pantry and explained how Arm In Arm help their clients achieve stability. While the presentation and Q&A demonstrated the commitment to the community in not only providing food, but providing also a sense of security and social support to confront challenges with dignity, one of the biggest takeaways is how geographical stereotypes are often misleading. Even in a place like Princeton, which with a superficial glance can easily be labeled as affluent, there are those in the community confronting issues of insecurity, risk and precarity (especially given such high costs of living). Insecurity is not something that is only present somewhere else—it exists in every community. Another salient issue was the absorption of surplus by the less privileged. While items like cranberry sauce find its way to pantries off-season, the pantry also endeavors to provide items that have value to their clients throughout the year with fresh produce, beans, meat etcetera.

On Day Three, we put down our pens in favor of aprons to confront nutrition, constraints and choice through working the stimulating environment of the dining hall kitchen. We integrated farmers’ market purchases with surplus food diverted from the dining hall. Campus chefs and nutritionists guided us through the process of creating a meal under limited budget and time constraints, while keeping in mind notions of nutrition, nourishment and taste. We cooked up falafels from leftover lentil soup, tossed pasta, sweet potato soup, apple tarts, melon-topped rusks and flavorful salads from leftover bulgogi. Throughout the process we asked ourselves: What could work for a family? What is not only edible, but tasty? What kinds of food restrictions must we keep in mind? We faced constraints from which we had to make decisions and were aided with the invaluable advice from campus food experts.

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The hands-on collaborative cooking and subsequent act of communal consumption marked the end of the three-day interconnected whirlwind of food activities and our exposure to critical issues of food risk and privilege in acts of production, distribution and consumption. The Col(LAB) experience reaches beyond disciplinary fields to work across and through boundaries: to ask questions about industrialization, class, identity and culture while engaging with scholars in the humanities and sciences, food experts, community members, food procurers, providers and purveyors. We immersed ourselves in procurement, awareness, production, discussion and commensality—and came out more thoughtful and more committed to continue to explore the vital issues of food, risk and privilege across the food system. Particularly for my own research, as I analyze global wheat trade, the baking industry and popular consumption in East Asia, these experiences remind and urge me to probe deeply into the kinds of risks and privileges entailed at every level of the food system, down to individual expressions of desire, choice and preference, for example, when consumers are confronted with a shelf of pre-packaged breads in the convenience store aisle, or alternatively, rustic wooden displays of just-baked breads at French-style boulangeries.

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