Food Matters

words by Jeanna Goodrich Balreira
photos by Balreira and Anh-Viet Dinh

When economics professor Nels Christiansen was handed a reflective essay titled “Why I Eat Meat,” written unapologetically, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Hadn’t the point of the assignment been for students to evaluate their food decisions? Hadn’t they just finished reading articles arguing against mass production, and listened to guest speakers discuss harmful ranching practices? Hadn’t the student learned?

It was in his blood, the student argued. It was a part of his family. He grew up with it; he needed it as an athlete; and frankly, he thought it was downright delicious.

For classmate Hannah-Elyse Konyecsni, a first-year from Austin, Texas, family food culture couldn’t have been more different. Growing up vegetarian and spending time as a vegan, Konyecsni’s interest was piqued by one course in particular on the first-year experience lineup.

“Food Matters.” Two words, many meanings. Konyecsni selected the course as her first choice, and by the time classes began in August, she was excited to share her point of view on food. What she didn’t anticipate, however, is how much the course would affect this point of view and steer her down an academic path she would not have otherwise imagined.

As part of the Pathways curriculum, Trinity University’s first-year experience (FYE) has been redesigned to introduce students to a topic of widespread or enduring significance through extensive engagement. Six-hour courses are co-taught by a pair of professors; each class meets five days a week to hone written and oral communication skills as well as evaluate a diverse array of information from sources across disciplines.

For Food Matters, the array of information spanned nonfiction books, journal articles, documentaries, and guest lecturers—not to mention the unique perspectives each student brought to class. The course began with The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan before moving through Salt, Sugar, Fat; Tomatoland; Sweetness and Power; and Closing the Food Gap. Each book brought an opportunity to discuss topics from target marketing to agricultural economics to social justice.

“There’s something about being able to say we’re going to spend an entire semester talking about a four-letter word that interacts with your personal life on a day-to-day basis that can also be studied from virtually any academic discipline,” says psychology professor Carolyn Becker, one of six professors who co-taught the Food Matters FYE. “It makes for a  unique experience at Trinity, especially among other liberal arts colleges.”

Konyecsni’s experience went from “wanting to be a forensic pathologist since fourth grade” to a better, more holistic understanding of how significantly food impacts her life and the lives of others. “After reading the books in this course and spending time with my classmates, I’m leaning more toward environmental studies and working with environmental policy, conservation, and animal rights,” she says. “These kinds of things are right up my alley.”

In the spirit of productive collisions, students weren’t the only ones evaluating their perspectives. Librarian Jeremy Donald, who co-taught a section of Food Matters with history professor Anene Ejikeme, came to the course curious about how society gets its information about food.

“We identify ourselves as ‘foodies’ or people who have a niche interest in food, but it isn’t until we see what people from other cultures or other regions are doing with food that we start to question the information that’s all around us,” Donald says. “Information literacy is about asking questions you hadn’t originally thought to ask.”

Christiana Ellard, a first-year student-athlete from San Antonio, began asking questions almost immediately. Describing her upbringing as sheltered—“a meat and carbs type”—Ellard was struck by the diversity in the course, both in the reading material and among her classmates.

“Going into the course, I was curious how the debates would happen and how the conversations would take place, we all came from so many different backgrounds,”

Ellard says. “I started to see so many different global aspects of food and how food affects our country’s government and other countries around the world politically and economically.”  

Ellard kept a food blog as part of course requirements, and she used it to express her thoughts on food matters. “As a first-year, all of this new information can be a bit overwhelming,” Ellard says, “but after learning it all, nothing is the same any more. Now, when I look at a package I see the marketing tactics, or when I eat a tomato I wonder if it was grown or harvested by slaves.

“I’m going to look for organically grown, local products instead of eating something shipped from across the nation or produced in a way that harms animals,” Ellard continues. “My opinion about the types of food I eat hasn’t changed, but I am definitely a lot more educated.”

Ellard’s experience aligned perfectly with the goals of the course, which included building awareness of how decisions about food concern local, regional, national, and global issues. “People grossly underestimate the number of food decisions they make in the day,” says Becker, who taught one section of the course alongside political science professor Keesha Middlemass. “Most people make well over 200.”

Becker’s hope was for students to begin understanding food decisions and their connections to a complicated world. “As students go through this course, they begin to see the complexity of food across time and place,” she says. “They’re reading material from psychology, history, economics, political science, sociology, and biology, and as the class moves on, you can see the light bulbs going off. They’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a connection here.’”

Zoheb Hirani, a first-year from Missouri City, Texas, knew these connections would play a major part in his Trinity education. Coming to the University with an interest in biochemistry and pre-medical studies, Hirani was eager to expand his horizons. “Pretty much every topic has surprised me so far,” Hirani says. “To understand food from a biochemistry perspective, I have to branch out and understand other things as well, like psychology, anthropology, and politics.”

Take corn, for example. Food Matters opened students’ eyes to the fact that more than 60 percent of the food Americans consume contains corn or a product of corn; for Hirani, this knowledge sparked concerns in biology, chemistry, and environmental ethics. “I had never looked at corn as being such a big part of life. It’s a part of our cultural environment. We manipulate genetics so that corn can be shipped thousands of miles away, or last longer than it should,” Hirani says. “We’re pretty much messing with nature.”

Nels Christiansen, professor of economics, is drawn to these concerns. Fueled by an appetite for health and wellness issues—as well as a passion for cooking—Christiansen jumped feet first into Food Matters with a unique industry perspective.

“There is interesting government policy about agriculture in general,” Christiansen says. “We’ve had conversations about the government subsidizing our food culture, especially when it comes to corn. We look at government policies and how they incentivize our farmers or consumers to behave.”

Essentially, if food is cheaper, we as a society can spend our money elsewhere. “But are we paying these costs down the road?” Christiansen asks. “There are ethical consequences for raising animals inhumanely, or mass-farming produce.”

“I like to call it the economics of food,” says Christiansen, who co-taught with theater professor Jody Karjala. “We introduce supply and demand, but we’re also talking about topics that aren’t conventional economics.

“But this is what Trinity is all about, right?” he adds. “By studying food in this way, students are making connections and being able to apply them in whatever field they choose.”

Fast-forward to the end of the fall semester, and the reflective essay Christiansen originally read had drastically changed its tone. “Why I Eat Meat—Sustainably and Responsibly,” the student wrote, citing “ah-ha” moments from a guest lecture by Tony Koch, owner of Koch Ranch in San Antonio, and passages from The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Closing the Food Gap.

In a course full of “ah-ha” moments, students valued their introduction to the concepts around, ideas about, and methods to study food. “This course has made such an impact on my life in the way that I tackle the thought process behind food,” Ellard says. “The integration of disciplines from professors with so many different backgrounds, along with the literature and the discussions in class, have shown me that the things I’m doing today might seem small, but they could have drastic effects on countries around the globe.

“Food really does matter,” Ellard concludes. “I could not have picked a better title for this course.”