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A Food Pioneer

It’s no surprise to UMBC Professor of American Studies Warren Belasco that food is entering mainstream curricula at American colleges and universities.

A number of academic institutions are using Belasco’s latest book, Food: The Key Concepts (Berg Publishers), as a required text in undergraduate courses examining how food can be viewed in the contexts of history, culture and the environment.

“This book is really an introductory overview of how one would teach food,” Belasco said. “The book is dedicated to students at UMBC because they really shaped it. Students don’t hesitate to tell me what they think.”

Samantha McGarity ’09 recently completed Belasco’s foundation American Studies course on American food.

“We looked at every part of food and consumption: Why do we eat what we eat? How do we eat what we eat? How was the food produced?” McGarity said. “I realized just how much I don't know about the food industry. It forever changed the way I look at what's on my plate.”

In an early chapter, Belasco cites the ordinary act of toasting a slice of white bread to illustrate the comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to food. He suggests that toasted white bread can trigger study of why some cultures value processed white grains more than whole grains, where toast fits in one’s morning ritual and who invented the sandwich.

Belasco spoke recently with the Washington Post about the implementation of food courses at Yale, several University of California campuses and the University of New Hampshire. The report called him “a pioneer” in the discipline.

With more than 25 years of experience as a food scholar, Belasco has served for the past five years as editor of Food, Culture & Society, an international multidisciplinary research journal.

He returns to the UMBC classroom after a 2008-09 sabbatical. He will continue to engage students in food topics that most never envisioned, such as his vision of a “sustainable hamburger” that governments, the food industry and agricultural scientists could develop as a departure from grain-fed, high-fat burgers.

“The basic pattern of a semester is to start with an appreciation of how food creates community and identity. I call this the ‘Oh, wow’ stage,” Belasco said. “From there, we move quickly to the ‘Oh, no’ stage: the problems with meat production, animal rights, environment and the obesity epidemic.”

As students become aware of these challenges, lively conversations emerge.

“The course is never the same two years in a row,” Belasco said.

(2/16/09)