This year’s freshman Common Text tells the story behind the food on your plate
Kelsey Timmerman’s journey — the one documented in his book Where Am I Eating? — began with a cup of Starbucks coffee. Curious where the beans came from and who had handled them, he traced his coffee back to the source: a farmer in Colombia. His quest continued with trips to the source of other foods including chocolate, bananas, lobster and apple juice. What he found made him think — and will make readers think — about how the food Americans eat affects the lives of people around the globe.
The book is the Common Text for the Class of 2020, who will spend their freshman year investigating the theme of food justice. It’s a broad topic that includes sustainability, nutrition, corporate responsibility, globalization, food insecurity, farmworkers’ rights and a host of other issues. In addition to reading the book and hearing Timmerman speak on campus, freshmen will watch food-related documentaries, meet organic farmers, and volunteer at local farms or food banks. In the spring, a small group will make their own investigative journey to banana plantations in Costa Rica as the culmination of a course focusing specifically on food justice.
We asked a few of the professors who’ll be teaching the text in their writing classes this fall what they appreciated about the book and what they hope students will learn.
We want to introduce incoming freshmen to the idea that, now that they’re in college, they are no longer passively absorbing information. We want to teach them how to question ideas that they’ve always just accepted. One of the things that most people don’t think about is where their food comes from, and that’s a good entry point to this practice of questioning — and not just questioning, but actively pursuing answers.
Almost everyone has had the experience of drinking Starbucks coffee, so it’s particularly interesting when Timmerman traces it back to the source. He takes a very basic product and then asks you to question: Is fair trade the answer? Is free trade the answer? Is Starbucks’ ethical sourcing really ethical? Probably the most dramatic part of the book is when he encounters slavery in Ivory Coast when he’s researching where chocolate comes from. He starts to grapple with the fine line between extreme low-wage work and actual slavery.
Millennials are very passionate about social justice, and like most of us, they also are big consumers. Often they don’t see where something they got at the store comes from, or the human cost of getting these products to them. Books like this help them make the connection. I know many of our students will factor in these social-justice concerns when they make future purchases, even if buying non-exploitative goods means spending more money.
I teach international students writing, and this topic is inherently international. I think it will give my students a sense that they’re coming here to think about global problems together with the American students. And I’m intrigued by how the author reconciles himself to that combination of feeling guilty about knowing where some of these things come from while continuing to consume them. Chocolate and coffee are very simple human pleasures that are hard to give up, despite what you know about them. How do you go on enjoying the things in your life when you have a more comprehensive understanding of the justice implications behind them?
One thing Timmerman talks about in the book is the workers’ perceptions of the major banana production companies and how they’re not what you might expect. Decades ago some companies would do things like spray pesticides over the people working in the fields, which led to some of them becoming sterile or having kidney damage. But the author found that many workers nonetheless had a sense of nostalgia for the way things used to be, when the companies hired more full-time workers and did more for the communities. We try to help our students move from thinking of things in binary terms — it’s good or it’s bad, buy bananas or don’t — and think in more complicated ways. To fulfill our mission of seeking justice and peace and changing the world, you have to move away from that idea that there’s a quick solution and instead see the complexity of the situation, and this book does a good job of fleshing out those complexities.
Robyn Ross is a writer for St. Edward’s University.