The multidisciplinary Food in Culture and Social Justice program examines the many ways food is more than simple nourishment

Sarah Cunningham

Sarah Cunningham

By Emily Willis, CLA Student Writer - March 8, 2024

The College of Liberal Arts’ Food in Culture and Social Justice Program (FCSJ), housed within the School of Language, Culture, and Society, aims to give students a holistic foundation in the study of food and culture, as well as the tools to help construct socially just food systems. OSU, known for producing cutting edge food systems research and practice, provides students with access to a wide range of food and agriculture-related resources from across the university’s 11 colleges. FCSJ is currently offered as a graduate minor and undergraduate certificate.

Sarah Cunningham, senior instructor in anthropology and coordinator of FCSJ, is passionate about the intersection of food and social justice to ensure food security for all, fair treatment of those whose labor feeds us, and empower communities to be active participants in the creation and implementation of food policies that affect their wellbeing. Along with teaching, Sarah cofounded Fresh and Local First, a local nonprofit that helps community members access fresh, local, and affordable food. The organization supports the buying power of low-income patrons using SNAP at  farmers’ markets in Benton and Linn counties.

A core component of the program is examining the relationship between food and identity through the foods that families and communities grow, cook, and eat. Food, from its production to consumption, is a powerful symbol of social and cultural meaning. As an expression of identity and subjectivity, food also marks borders between humans and non-humans, plants and animals, nature and culture, and tradition and modernity.

Cunningham is an applied anthropologist who became interested in food justice through the lens of rural livelihoods, particularly family farms and the effects on communities when smaller farms decline. “It started with my maternal grandfather, who like so many other American farmers, lost his farm during the 1980s farm crisis."

Students within the program hail from various disciplines across campus and online. Coursework required in the FCSJ program spans disciplines such as agriculture, anthropology, ethnic studies, and history, followed by elective courses in natural resources and social sciences. This multidisciplinary approach provides students with expertise to better understand society and culture through food. The different perspectives brought to the program enhance the ways that students can incorporate the curriculum into their professional lives and communities.

A critical piece of coursework is the 1-credit FCSJ 406, Food Projects, which serves as an experiential and service learning course for students to further hone their skills and grow their networks volunteering on a food justice project. Past projects by students have included developing  a community garden, helping out at food pantries and meal sites, conducting ethical purchases review for UHDS, working at local organizations like Slow Food Corvallis and the Ten Rivers Food Web, as well as hosting events, like the Celebration of Global Culinary Heritage and the annual Empty Bowls Benefit.

“With a variety of hands-on projects,” Cunningham elaborated, “students get a chance to practice being the change that they wish to see in the world.”