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Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I spent two very intense weeks at the end of September leading the lntercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice (ILC) through various interesting sites of food production and consumption in Oregon. In December we will visit parallel sites in Ecuador. The ILC was developed jointly by food activists in Ecuador and Oregon in 2013 to de-colonize the typical study abroad program. We do this by forming an international, multicultural group of people from both Oregon and Ecuador who are invested in some aspect of the food system and feel that humankind can do better. We look for ways in which the practice of sustainable foodways can address some of today’s most pressing concerns, such as environmental degradation, climate change, the proliferation of ill health and marginalization of people. Through cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning, participants further develop their knowledge, social networks and their capacity for engaging with food practices as global citizens, rooted in local realities.

We have an excellent group of participants this year, including professional chefs, farmers, food activists, and multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate students. We began the tour in Portland with a visit to the Oregon Food Bank (OFB). The OFB is at the forefront of state food banks in taking a food systems approach to hunger, but they are still a dumping site for commodity goods that recent tariffs have left without a foreign market. OFB advocates for changes that address the root causes of hunger and they work hard at building community-based food systems. We saw evidence of this in the farms next to the warehouse where we spoke with Latina, African American and Native American farmers who were given plots of land to plant to grow culturally important foods that they share with their communities. Later in the trip, we spent time at the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde reservations and learned of their efforts to revitalize traditional foodways on land that was already full of invasive species. We also spent a morning with Latinx activists and heard about the challenges and successes of forming the farmworkers union in the Northwest. Later, we had a conversation in Spanish with the women’s field crew at a local organic farm. Twelve hour work days seemed abusive to many of the group members, but the women explained that they had to leave their children back home in Mexico and Guatemala and appreciated every extra hour that they could work.

We spent a fair amount of time visiting various OSU agrifood research sites (naked barley; whey vodka; black tomatoes; bacon-flavored algae) and also talked to breeders who are adapting Andean crops to the Willamette Valley (quinoa, amaranth, mashua, oca, melloco, uvilla, achoccha). We also spoke to an extension agent working with SNAP outreach. She showed us a photograph of a school lunch tray with a bag of Doritos on it. We were all shocked to see a branded product on the tray and even more shocked to find out that industries altered their products to meet the latest requirements and then bid to have their branded products included in the school lunch program, but that it was illegal to sell branded products in school vending machines in Oregon. An even stranger incident came to light later at the capitol in our discussion about the Farm to School program. We asked about culturally appropriate foods and were told a story about a Latina mother who wanted to get tamales into the school lunch program. She was told that any grain product had to be at least 50% whole grain and since the corn for masa is treated with lime or lye to make it more digestible (and nutritious) it is no longer considered whole grain. Several of our group members spoke up about the ancient technique of nixtamalization that made niacin available to corn eaters and prevented pellagra, but rules are rules, even when ethnocentric and lacking in historical perspective. Luckily the administrator was able to work with the mother to come up with a tamale that fit the requirements. We wonder how it tastes. (While on the topic of ethnocentrism, we could also mention the “American Grown” label, which the Ecuadorians were told meant that it was grown in the USA, not anywhere else in the Americas.)

As we drove around the verdant countryside, favoring agroecological, diverse production sites, we whizzed past giant fields of monocultures —not the corn and soybeans of the Midwest, but hazelnuts (now that OSU has developed a blight resistant variety), wine grapes (as California gets too hot and dry) and the recently legalized hemp. It has been called marijuana’s no-buzz cousin and has created a gold rush (or shall we say “green rush”) among farmers. But every silver cloud has a toxic lining. The original gold rush left arsenic in the land; the pollen from industrial hemp threatens to infect not only its increasingly designer high cousin, but also the taste of neighboring wine grapes.

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

One of the aims of the ILC is to engage physically as well as intellectually with the food system. We did this in the course of many meals made by local chefs with local ingredients, but we also lent our 34 hands to the Linn Benton Food Share to pack food boxes for hospital patients; to the OSU Organic Growers’ Club to weed the brassicas, and to the Food for Lane County Youth Farm to trim harvested garlic. In addition, we cooked an excellent Ecuadorian meal for Slow Food Corvallis and several of our presenters and host families. We were lucky to have two professional chefs in our group and they coordinated beforehand to bring ingredients like lupin beans (chochos) tostados, chifles, and a rare white cacao-like bean called macambo.

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

It’s difficult to find the time for people to pursue individual research interests in such a packed agenda, but we managed to do so at the Corvallis Farmers Market. We first had an introduction to the market on Friday by its manager. Then we discussed questions we were interested in asking vendors and buyers at the market. We formed pairs of researchers and spent the next day wandering the market, observing, and asking questions. We got back together after lunch to discuss what we had learned. First of all, the Ecuadorians were very impressed with the Corvallis market. Several of them who sell at markets talked about ideas that they would try to implement back home. One pair documented ways in which vendors brought people into their booths. Another interviewed women producers about challenges they have faced in this work. Land access was another topic and one pair focused on Latinx shoppers asking what drew them to the market. Everyone was impressed with the number of times that “community” arose in their conversations. Here are some things that surprised the Ecuadorians: that the meat stands were so neat and sterile, no sign of whole animals either dead or alive; that amaranth was being used as a flower in bouquets; that the prices were fixed and posted; that most of the vendors had finished college; that some vendors had photographs of their farms; that there was a booth for children to be occupied while their parents shopped; that there were musicians and artists making the market an attractive place to be.

The trip left us satisfied and exhausted and ready to explore similar themes in Ecuador in December.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology, Food Studies