Thursday, February 28, 2013

Busy Busy...

It really has been a busy month. At UVic, I've just finished a four week course called Just Food taught by Jessica Miles. About ten minutes into the first class I realized that Ms. Miles was the sociologist with whom Paula and I had spent a couple of hours talking. Ms. Miles is looking at food narratives--the ways in which our relationship to food both helps construct and is constructed by narrative. (Of course, that's just my take.... ) So it was interesting to be in a class where I got to explore what she was taking away from these talks with people.
The readings were also intriguing. Topics like alternative food culture in San Francisco county jail (Sandra Cates' "Breaking Bread with a Spread" in a San Francisco County Jail from Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture Summer 2008) which explored the interface of prison restrictions and freedoms, food culture and gang culture, and Latino and African-American food culture, and Julie Guthman's Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice (DOI: 10.1177 / 1474474008094315 ) which looks at racial bias and the issue of white privilege in efforts to address diet and food supply problems in community food movements. the latter piece is one I hope to have something to say about in the future. All in all, a terrific class and one that absorbed a lot of my attention.
At the same time, I've been taking an online course through Coursera entitled
An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health, brought out by the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This too was an involving course. An introduction, to be sure, and not much about the global food system that I didn't already know, but the perspective of public health was new and brought with it different insights into the role and impact of the industrial food system. It was also interesting but exhausting to interact with thousands of other people on the chat boards. I've been put on to some good books  and articles, but the noise level got a little higher than I might have preferred. In particular, the ongoing argument between vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores wasn't something that was going to find a resolution over the past six weeks. This difficulty in dealing with a complex problem with radically different stakeholders and contradictory opinions was set off  nicely in Michael Hamm's paper Principles for Framing a Healthy Food System in The Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. The abstract reads:
Wicked problems are most simply defined as ones that are impossible to solve. In other words, the range of complex interacting influences and effects; the influence of human values in all their range; and the constantly changing conditions in which the problem exists guarantee that what we strive to do is improve the situation rather than solve the wicked problem. This does not mean that we cannot move a long way toward resolving the problem but simply that there is no clean endpoint. This commentary outlines principles that could be used in moving us toward a healthy food system within the framework of it presenting as a wicked problem.
I like the idea of a "wicked problem"; one that is too complex to solve.That we don't actually need to solve a problem--that is, bring to a finite end, having achieved certain metrics--but instead need to embark upon processes that lead to improvements while at the same time remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions is one that deeply appeals to me. Natural systems are like that. Farms are like that. There is no final solution (and remember where those words have lead us), there is only better and worse. A good year on a farm, you grow more food. A bad year, less. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to always growing the most food. In fact, it's that thinking that has lead us into the current quagmire of the industrial food system.
The pace gets more difficult in the coming weeks. Today Leanne and I are hosting our first "Learn how to..." day at the Rainbow Kitchen. Today is an introduction into how to make cheese at home. My UVic course is Quantum Physics for Non-Physicists which should be fairly brutal. Then on the 4th is the online course Sustainable Agricultural Land Management,  followed, a week later by the start of  Introduction to Sustainability and in 18 days,Economic Issues, Food & You. Then there's cooking at the Kitchen, vacation relief work, and, with any luck, a second "Learn how to..." day about making sausage. Looks like a busy month.....

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