Ask The Eater: Defining “Food” by the Way We Eat

Farm Market Ask the Eater Image

I joined the Community and Regional Food Systems Project (CRFS) in May of 2015 as a communications assistant. CRFS functions as a national coalition-building web centralized in Madison and Milwaukee, WI. Project members and community partners are linked together by shared funding and a mission “to build vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive urban food systems that provide healthy food for all residents.” In order to understand the scope of a project that spans seven cities and supports research, advocacy, educational and organizational food systems work, I began by introducing myself to the people who power it.

CRFS Project member Monica Theis is currently drafting a chapter for the book that consolidates the experiences and learning of CRFS project members over the past five years. What follows is the result of our chat about her chapter topic, “Food Preparation, Food Skills and Knowledge,” and what she has learned from her work supporting the UW Police Department (UWPD) and the Middleton Outreach Ministry Food Pantry. Theis is a registered dietitian and senior lecturer in the UW-Madison Food Science Department; please see the bottom of this post for her full bio.

Written by: Oona Mackesey-Green

Students whiz by on bicycles outside the windows of Monica Theis’s office in Babcock Hall. Her windows face busy University Avenue, although the summertime midday traffic is noticeably lighter than during the semester. Theis’s back is turned towards the scene as she faces me, responding to my question with questions of her own: what is food? And who gets to define it?

Contemporary food issues range from crop subsidies to aquaponics; from urban land use to fast food workers’ wages to the best way to season kale chips. Food can be a cultural access point to approach broader topics through the lens of consumption. We all need to eat. What we eat and don’t eat depends on our personal preferences, cultural identities and what we are able to access. Sharing food, and acknowledging eating as a shared experience, can be a powerful way to bridge those differences and develop awareness of their effects.

Yet, in order to engage in these discussions, we need to have a shared definition of what constitutes “food.” Or do we?

Theis listed a couple of possibilities to answer her latter question – the government, educators – before settling on one that seemed the most salient: the eaters.

Given the power to define food for oneself, the vast variations that exist from individual to individual become clear.

Like shoving a fork into a bowl of miso, or a tackling a baguette with a teaspoon, the pieces of food systems work cannot connect until the variety of table settings are acknowledged. Theis seems to suggest that perhaps what we are searching for – a labeled map, a scripted approach, a vetted solution to create healthy food systems – does not exist. Instead, we must begin from scratch at every table to meet specific needs that vary as much as the eaters do.

The definition of food, Theis noted, is particularly important for academics and researchers to challenge in their work with community organizations and institutions in order to understand and address their partners’ needs.

“There is a history of burned bridges, particularly with academics and community relations,” said Theis. Community and academic connections deteriorate when the needs of the community partner are not met, or are treated as a temporary site for research.

Food accessibility research offers a poignant example. While many academics direct funding and other resources into probing at potential causes and solutions to limited food access, the issue is more complicated than providing those in need with the raw materials to prepare food.

“There is a disconnect between making food accessible and getting it on the table,” Theis said. The eater, the cook, needs the resources and facilities to get food onto the table, as well as the knowledge, skill and passion to purchase and prepare it.

Common conceptions of “good food” touted by the burgeoning food movement often become entangled with words like “organic”, “local”, “fresh”, “home-cooked” and associated with spaces like grocery cooperatives, farmer’s markets and CSA stands. These interpretations of good food, however, also carry implicit cultural values. When a trip to the local farmer’s market is at best a chore, and at worst a nerve-wracking foray that can highlight racial, ethnic, gendered and socio-economic privileges, the qualifier “good” quickly deteriorates.

Similarly, ideals of what food is or is not become implicitly knotted in community work when an individual or organization fails to acknowledge the possibility that definitions of food and good food vary as much as the communities they serve. The rhetoric used by food systems activists and academics alike can open rifts where issues of privilege and race, if unaddressed by the individual activist, can drain the energy of communities and community organizations.

Rather than targeting food access at the source, Theis shifted her focus to ask “how can we help people make better healthy choices in the context of their lives?”

When the Middleton Outreach Ministry food pantry began accepting donations of cakes and cookies from a neighboring bakery, Theis described the kind of criticism that can come from public health employees and academics directed at pantries for offering unhealthy foods to their patrons. “In a community where business and citizens support the community with open minds and hearts, it is simply unheard of – if not ridiculous – to deny a community partner to donate food. These businesses donate in the spirit of helping their local partners. The criticism tends to come from ‘outside do-gooders’ that don’t understand or respect or appreciate the values of the community. This happens a lot when ‘outsiders’ think that they know how to fix things.”

Working to support the food pantry through her experience with dietetics and food science, Theis addressed these reproaches by redefining “healthy food” through the eyes of those consuming it.

Despite their low nutritional value, the cakes and cookies provided an opportunity for the pantry to build a supportive community relationship while allowing those in need of its services to access a wider range of food options.

Those dedicating their time and passions to food systems work may find a solution to the disconnect between food accessibility and consumption if they turn to the eaters.

The factors that influence food production and consumption are endless: nutritional health, the local economy and the environment, for example; but if the ultimate goal of food systems work boils down to changing what consumers eat, it becomes more clear that the voice of the “eater” is the most influential one. According to Theis, the factors that people tend to take consideration at the crucial moment of purchasing the food that will end up on their table are primarily: “Do I like it? What is the cost? How much work will it take to get ready to eat?” With secondary and tertiary concerns following those basic concerns: “Is it local? Is it fresh? What is the nutritional value? And its environmental impact? Animal rights? Worker rights? Local economy?”

In order to build mutually benefiting community partnerships, those engaging in food systems work must assume the onus of nurturing sustainable relationships with community partners by listening to the eaters. A long-term investment of energy and the flexibility to tailor services to the specific, ongoing needs of the community partner, however, challenges the paradigm of collecting “measurable” results, says Theis. “It takes a long time for people to learn enough to see change.” In her own work partnering with community organizations, “Gathering evidence was secondary, if it was on the table at all. This was not about the desires, needs or goals of the researcher, but those of the community. What do the clients need right now?

20 UWPD officers gathered in the basement of Babcock Hall for two hours a week from September through October of 2014, participating in Thesis’ pilot cooking course. The cooking lessons were structured around the requests of the police officers and designed to give attention to their everyday food practices. The weekly course provided a substantial step in the right direction, but for true change to take effect, funding for this type of engagement must extend for longer periods of time while allowing the researcher to embrace the food practices of the eaters. Participants covered only the costs of the food they cooked and consumed during the course; if the costs had included fees for use of the University facilities and faculty, the minimum charge would be $100 per person. In the future, Theis will not be able to finagle free access to the licensed kitchen space. Although community food systems work is a growing field, Theis says “when addressing food and health nutrition in the community, there are a lack of resources to pay for the depth of information and education needed to create change.”

As she looks ahead towards the future of her community partnerships, she sees momentum shifting: “We are making meaningful progress.” As creative strategies grow beyond the barriers to food accessibility and become more inclusive of eaters, Theis envisions food systems work with a “place for everybody.”

About: Monica Theis, M.S. RD

Monica Theis is a senior lecturer at The University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Food Science. She is a registered dietitian and specializes in Food, Foodservice and Food Systems Management. Monica began her career as an administrative dietitian at The University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics and spent three years as director of food and nutrition services for a 120-bed long-term care facility before joining the faculty and staff in The Department of Food Science in 1990. Monica’s primary responsibility is to teach all Food and Nutrition management courses as required for the Dietetics major. This includes Foodservice Operations, a foods lab and Organization and Management of Food and Nutrition Services. Monica also teaches courses for the Department of Food Science including Food Law, The Social Side of Food, and a brand new course on professionalism for the food science majors. In addition to management, Relative to Food Systems, Monica has worked with a number of local schools and healthcare organizations to identify means to implement sustainable practices within available resources. In addition, Monica is involved in a number of initiatives on the UW-Madison campus to support concepts of sustainability in food systems. Monica is co-author of Foodservice Management: principles and practices. The 13th edition will be released in 2015.