‘Nacho’ Average Political Science Course: Penn State Food Politics
Food is and always has been political.
According to “PLSC 497: Food Politics” professor Dr. Amy Sentementes, the simple act of preparing a dish for someone can be considered political.
Political backgrounds shape the taste of individuals, so perceptions of foods and their status in American society are inherently political.
“Foods are an extension of our identities, which are also inherently political,” Sentementes said. “This class challenges students to explore the role of food in political debates centered on race, gender, and stereotypes to determine if it serves as more of a uniter or just another divider in this polarized era.”
The scope of this course ranges from lectures about public policy related to food production and consumption to discussions about the food on each student’s very own dinner table.
Sentementes earned her Ph.D. in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill and specializes in American politics and political psychology. During the grueling and isolating process of writing her dissertation, she frequently cooked and baked for her students as a hobby.
After her students convinced her to start a food Instagram account, her success took off, and she began writing from a local food blog and freelance writing for a local newspaper.
After expanding her reading scope in food writing and watching “Ugly Delicious,” Sentementes began thinking about the themes of identities, stereotypes, and framing and how they related to her expertise in political psychology. In 2018, she made the decision to combine her passion for food and her professional training as a political scientist.
Sentementes’ three-credit food politics course is being taught for the first time ever this semester to a class of 35 students remotely. The class is open to all majors.
The course structure includes blog posts, guest lectures, and papers, while also sprinkling podcasts, documentaries, and popular food shows in the mix. When the class resumes in-person, Sentementes hopes to incorporate her own food into the curriculum and have students share their “identity foods.”
Sentementes joked that when her students watched “The Chef’s Table” featuring Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa, she wanted more than anything to be able to take a field trip with her class to eat barbacoa tacos together.
“Students’ biggest takeaways are that their dietary choices are shaped by political factors of which they previously were unaware. They are thinking more critically about the impact of their dietary habits, as they learn about how different foods reflect a politicized diet culture and influence the environment,” Sentementes said. “Critically, they also are learning to humanize the people who produce their favorite foods.”
The food politics course explores the evolution of dietary guidelines over time, the role of fast food in America, and the political actors who contribute to food distribution and its presentation of nutritional benefits. Additionally, it explores how food plays a role in the context of race, gender, immigration, and intersectionality.
“Watching students’ eyes light up when they realize the foods they eat carry a deeper meaning than providing fuel has been incredibly rewarding,” Sentementes said. “Reading their thoughtful responses to blog
post assignments also has validated the need for classes like this to exist.”
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