Eating may seem like a straightforward act of everyday life, but if you look at it from a sociological perspective, why people eat the way they do is a complex question. Just ask Ken Kolb, Ph.D., assistant professor of Sociology at Furman. This spring, he devoted a May Experience—MayX—to the study of food systems. He framed the course around the problem of food deserts, geographic areas where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile.
Dr. Kolb did his sabbatical research a year ago on food deserts, honing in on the economically depressed South and West sides of Greenville. “There are assumptions that if you make healthy food accessible to people, it will improve their diets, but empirically, that has not panned out,” Dr. Kolb explains. Nutritionists and public health scholars have looked at proximity to good food and the price of food as the factors driving behavior, but Dr. Kolb found this was not the case.
During the two-week Sociology of Food Systems course, 21 students spent classroom time discussing this and other food-related issues, such as how class, race, and geography influence the food choices that people make.
They also devoted four mornings from 8 a.m. to noon to weeding garden beds, planting and picking vegetables, and performing other manual tasks at Greenbrier Farms in Easley. “I wanted the students to see that the production of food can be quite different at a small scale, as opposed to a large industrialized farm,” Dr. Kolb notes.
“We take for granted that food just shows up in grocery stores,” observes Karlee Bryde ’17, a business major and a fan of healthy eating. After cutting down small trees with a machete and getting blisters on her hands from stringing wire to support tomato plants, this farm first-timer admits she never thought about the amount of work that goes into growing food. “I definitely gained an appreciation for how hard it is to make a living by farming,” she says. “It was shocking to learn that Greenbrier earns close to half of their revenue from having events at the farm.”
A double-major in business and communications, Ivy Loftus ’18 has little time during the school year to indulge in non-business classes, so Sociology of Food Systems piqued her interest. “My dad grew up on a farm in Ireland, and he always talked about the value of farming,” she says.
At Greenbrier Farms, she even discovered some new vegetables. “We picked kohlrabi,” recalls Loftus, who had never before encountered this bulbous cultivar of cabbage (also called a German turnip). “We were talking in class about people not eating vegetables because they didn’t know how to cook them,” she adds. “I never thought that would apply to me, as I grew up eating lots of fruits and vegetables. But I realized that if someone delivered kohlrabi to my door, I wouldn’t know what to do with it either.”
A passionate proponent of sustainability as it applies to food, Hagan Capnerhurst ’17 found the farm experience eye-opening. “We spent one entire morning digging holes for new fence posts,” says the sustainability science major. Another morning was devoted to weeding rows of beets. “Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see were beets,” she laughs. For Capnerhurst, the best part of being at Greenbrier was “getting to the literal roots of the food system” in her conversations with the farmers.
It wasn’t all work, however. At noon, Greenbrier’s chef prepared a gourmet lunch (barbecue sliders, pork tacos, just-picked salad greens) using meat and produce from the farm. “We had some amazing meals and got to enjoy the fruits of our labor,” Loftus exclaims.
Every student took something different away from the experience, but all acknowledge the time, knowledge, and effort involved in raising animals and growing vegetables on a small farm. “Until you are there, you don’t realize all the details required to run an organic farm,” muses Loftus. “Everyone should experience a farm,” echoes Capnerhurst, who is doing more farm research this summer for her senior thesis. “Consumers need to take a stab at growing food to understand how hard it is.”
Learn more about Furman’s May Experience program.