Rohatyn Center Discusses Global Food Insecurities

By Sarah Asch

The fourth annual International and Interdisciplinary Conference, titled “Food Insecurity in a Globalized World: The Politics and Culture of Food Systems” was hosted at the College’s Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs on March 10-12. The conference explored the politics, economics and history of food insecurity and included presentations by Middlebury professors and guest lecturers from around the world. According to Tamar Mayer, the Robert R. Churchill Professor of Geosciences who directs both the Rohatyn Center and the International and Global Studies Program, the conference organizing committee selected the 17 papers presented out of 54 submissions.

The topic of global food insecurity was chosen in 2013 when Mayer and the Rohatyn Center Steering Committee planned conference topics until 2020.

“Food insecurity is probably one of the most important social problems of our time,” Mayer said. “Students need to understand that food insecurity is constructed. It’s not natural. A lot of it is political – it’s the economic systems that created it, it’s the neoliberal policies that created it. And our students are either going to challenge those, or going to participate in them, or both.”

Lee Schlenker ’16 attended the conference and enjoyed the variety of perspectives. “It was nice to have professors who came to Middlebury who had very different purposes or missions with their research,” Schlenker said. “Even if I don’t really agree with all of the things that were said I think it’s nice to have that interdisciplinary perspective.”

Jessie Mazer, a graduate student at the University of Vermont, gave a presentation on local issues of food insecurity. Her talk focused on how undocumented migrant dairy farmworkers in Vermont struggle to feed their families. Mazer highlighted the difficulties Mexican farmworkers face in Vermont, which she identified as the second whitest state in the nation. Mazer posited that government surveys do not capture the full extent of food insecurity among migrants because people often say they can afford certain foods that they cannot access.

“[The migrant workers are] saying that ‘Yes, we have enough money to access food but we can’t go to the grocery store because we don’t have transportation and when we go to the grocery store we’re at risk for deportation,’” Mazer said.

On Saturday the conference turned to discussing solutions to food insecurity. The College’s William R. Kenan Professor of Food Studies Molly Anderson argued in her presentation that changes to the food system must start with grassroots movements to inspire the public interest needed to push reform onto the political agenda.

“As this permeates through society—this awareness of impacts and the influence of these legislators—then cultural values and beliefs start changing,” Anderson said.

David Cleveland, an environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presented his work looking at the intersection between food justice and climate justice. His research focused on the medical and environmental benefits of healthier diets. The alternative diets had less red and processed meats and less processed grain than the average American diet. They included more vegetables, beans and fruits. By adopting healthier diets Cleveland suggested Americans could save billions on healthcare costs and reduce green house emissions related to food production.

The conference ended with Angélica Segura ’16 and Francesca Conde ’17 providing a summary in which they identified six overarching themes. The first theme was individual choice versus broader food safety.

“A lot of the topics highlighted the problematic trade off that has often occurred when the rights of the citizens are sacrificed in order to eradicate food insecurity,” Segura said.

Next, they discussed the way food insecurity relates to class and gender. The third topic explored how food insecurity is the product of systematic disinvestment in low-income communities and lack of institutional state support. The fourth theme they outlined was the need to identify dominant actors in the food discussion. “In the past few years we have witnessed a seismic shift in farming driven by new technologies and the nature of such technologies means that not all of us have the scientific understanding that is often necessary to participate in the conversation,” Segura said.

The fifth theme looked at food as cultural capital by noting the importance of social networks in food insecure communities. Lastly, the pair explored the tensions between producers and consumers and between industry efficiency and the nutritional value of food.

“Over the past few days ideas have been put forward that have shattered a traditional understanding of food insecurity and have exposed it for what it really is,” Segura said. “[It is] a phenomenological experience, a historical product and often the result of trade policies and power interest.”

For a full list of presenters, presentation topics and to see videos of the panels visit the Rohatyn Center website.