When most people think of philosophy, they imagine ancient Greek academics or wigged French dandies locked in deep discussions in distant rooms. Few, if any, think of ravioli.
But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, at the end of the hall at Mountain View Elementary, UAA philosophy students used the Italian dumplings to frame conversations about ethical eating and the implications of food. As boiling pots steamed the frosty windows, the college students slipped in big ideas condensed for little minds.
These students were on assignment in their senior capstone course, titled Ethics Community and Society. This semester, professor and environmental philosopher Raymond Anthony used the course to address food justice, with an extra dash of community outreach. Throughout November, his UAA students visited Polaris, Tudor and Mountain View Elementary Schools to talk about the ethics of food systems at both local and global levels.
Not sure what food justice entails? Neither were the fifth graders. “I thought it was evil food brought to justice,” one student at Mountain View volunteered. Not quite.
Food justice is the guiding belief that all people have a basic right to nutrition and food security, and food should be produced and delivered in an ethically responsible way. But that sunny synopsis doesn’t readily jibe with the reality of mega-farms and international shipping. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, Americans waste 30 to 40 percent of food. That problem is exacerbated in a unique place like Alaska, where 95 percent of food is shipped from Outside. As anyone who’s picked over avocados here knows, the window between ripe and rotten can be brief this far north.
With waste in mind, Anthony’s student discussed ethics in the food system and focused on making deliberate choices about our food as citizens and consumers. What are the environmental implications of the global food trade? Do government policies encourage food waste and food equity, and how can a just society feed hungry citizens within those constraints? Are we what we eat, or do we eat what we are? And what do Costco’s individually wrapped apple slices say about us as a society?
Funded by grants from the National Library of Medicine, the Environmental Health Information Partnership and the Center for Public Service Communications, Anthony tasked his students with a sizable challenge—distill a semester of classroom conversations and academic readings into a readily accessible scope for energetic fifth graders. The course required Anthony’s students—or, as he calls them, the big kids—“to communicate some of these major concepts in the most effective way to these growing minds.”
At Polaris, UAA students talked about the intersection of culture, family and food with their classroom, and then made take-home compost piles in tiny sandwich bags. At Tudor Elementary, UAA students helped fifth graders grow alfalfa sprouts to understand resiliency, made smoothies with browning bananas to think about waste, and even shocked some kids with the news that baby carrots are, in fact, plastic-wrapped portions of larger carrots (one girl’s reaction: “I knew it! I knew that’s what they were doing the whole time!”)
At Mountain View Elementary, kids blended ricotta, chopped mushrooms and pressed noodles with a device some students dubbed “the squish squash,” as the big kids supervised and kept the conversation going. They cooked with a host of world spices—Greek seasoning, Hawaiian salt, cayenne, curry and Puerto Rican steak rub—to spark conversations about the global food industry.
Whether or not the kids processed the philosophical implications of these activities, they at least approached familiar material with fresh eyes.
“I think awareness is probably the biggest takeaway you can give a fifth grader,” said Emmy Janes, a philosophy and psychology major who worked with her daughter’s fifth grade class at Tudor Elementary. She anticipates some students will go home and nudge their parents on the ethics of food waste. Her daughter has already delivered several requests from classmates for more alfalfa sprout starters.
Demry Mebane, a political science major who worked with the Mountain View group, reflected on the value of mixing academic discussion with community outreach. “Condensing that 400-level material was just challenging and very rewarding,” he said of the course. “It was honestly one of the greatest experiences I’ve had at UAA. I’m very happy to say I was part of this program.”
The capstone class culminated with a public symposium on Dec. 2. The community discussion allowed UAA students to sit alongside a cultural anthropologist who specializes in Alaska food systems, the director for Alaska’s division of agriculture and a librarian from Alaska Medical Library (plus a few of those fifth graders’ families) to discuss what they’ve discovered through the semester.
Anthony’s 14 students, mostly juniors and seniors, will soon graduate with diverse degrees. In their careers, these students may be in positions to impact both Alaska food policy and public awareness of environmental ethics.
Through this community-focused course, Anthony believes his students are better prepared to translate ethics to impact. “We’re trying to invite our students, who are going to be the next generation of leaders and citizens in our community, to develop competencies in communicating ethics issues with members of the public,” he noted.
Though he’s referring to his UAA upperclassmen, the same idea holds for the next generation of leaders sitting in today’s fifth grade classrooms. Though these 9- and 10-year-olds are a long way from careers in policy and commerce, an early introduction to environmental and food ethics can help ensure everyone has a seat at the table in the future.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement