Dickinson welcomed Chef Hugh Acheson earlier this month as part of the inaugural weekend of the Food Studies Certificate and Clarke Forum fall lecture series. Chef Acheson was the guest chef at the college farm’s monthly pop-up restaurant, GATHER, and participated in several discussions on his newly developed home economics curriculum, SEED Life Skills, with students and faculty. With course content designed for middle and high school aged students, SEED reintroduces crucial knowledge for living independently, like cooking nutritious meals from scratch and reading the terms of a lease, back into the classroom.
Acheson’s program is the epitome of a community-level response. By inserting himself in the classroom, Chef Acheson’s goal is to empower students with the home economics and cooking knowledge to make better choices around food. Students can become the generation of consumers that will change our food system if they choose homemade meals over prepared foods, make the effort to create family and community ties around culinary experiences, and re-evaluate the push and pull of convenience.
Dickinson students and faculty joined their guest in a meeting of the minds, an opportunity for conversation revolving around SEED and its influence on lifestyle choices of millennials. Jenn Halpin introduced Chef Acheson after which he opened the floor for conversation of his new program and domestic hunger on a larger scale. Discussion touched on a range of issues including social norms in the kitchen, domestic versus professional, and Hugh’s experience bringing his curriculum to the classroom.
The conversation brought SEED out of the classroom and framed the program as one part of our greater food system. Faculty and students brought up structural obstacles that small programs, like SEED, working toward positive change may encounter. For some, convenience is too valuable or entrenched in their lifestyle to easily sacrifice. Multiple jobs and responsibilities, especially under pressure of low wages, coupled with familial responsibilities of managing the home and taking care of children, may make a communal, home-cooked meal impossible. Furthermore, limited access to fresh ingredients, whether because of the price or geographic barriers, places further restrictions on a family’s ability to prepare and enjoy food together.
Faculty and students agreed that SEED was an admirable program but they pushed Chef Acheson to address the structural issues in our greater food system. Consequently, limited consumer choice, particularly among communities of low socioeconomic status, came to the forefront. Those criticizing the larger system suggested that the choices that poor people have are extremely limited by the wealthy minority of individuals/corporations who hold a disproportionate amount of power and by larger structural forces. This was the topic over which major disagreement arose. Chef Acheson argued that it is irresponsible and elitist to tell the poor that they are powerless, interpreting it as dismissing their voices to be meaningless. His opposition agreed that the poor should not be seen as powerless but it should be recognized that their power is significantly limited by the decisions which they are allowed to make…and the choices they have in those decisions.
Hugh Acheson is first and foremost a chef; however he argued that he was being asked to solve all the problems plaguing our food system. Chef Acheson was clear that his contribution to mending our broken system exists at the community-level and felt that criticisms of SEED suggested that his work was insignificant. Understandably, he was upset. I was upset. The faculty and students were upset. It is discouraging to be faced with the feeling that the problem you are most passionate about is insurmountable. However, it is framing the food reform in this way, as a single problem with a single solution, which is our downfall. The problem as a whole may be insurmountable, no sweeping solution would solve all of the issues with the food system, but individual efforts can come together to make noticeable change.
What do these “efforts” look like? For one, increasing the minimum wage. Individuals that make up the lower socioeconomic classes are also those that are most victimized by our food system. By increasing income, these individuals and their families can make more decisions and have more choices. Parents may no longer work two jobs. Instead, they can spend time at home cooking homemade meals, building family around food, and teaching their children to do the same. Furthermore, if government subsidies are redirected from commodity crops (corn, soy, and wheat) into fresh produce, these families can afford more and healthier ingredients for their homemade meals. Removing subsidies from crops like corn and soy, that are used to produce high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oil, results in higher prices of processed foods. The choice between fresh fruits and vegetables and manufactured snacks is no longer dictated by affordability. Chefs and teachers, including Hugh Acheson, are contributing by teaching domestic science and ensuring that students know how to use fresh ingredients when they become available. Regardless of what the effort looks like, we must understand that no one solution will solve all of our problems. Instead, we can become informed and take responsible action, becoming an interweaving thread in a web of change.