Bringing the Humanist Lens to Food Politics and Policy

Susan Levine, director of the Institute for the Humanities. Photo by Joshua Clark

This past January, Susan Levine, a professor in the Department of History, added the title of Director of the Institute for the Humanities to her CV. In addition to her research and teaching focus on gender and social movements, she brings interest and expertise in the subject of food politics and policy.

This affinity sparked planning for an international conference on the subject. Hunger, Famine and Abundance: Global Perspectives on Food since 1945, will take place on the UIC campus in April, 2013. An interdisciplinary planning committee including Levine; Phyllis Bowen, Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition; Molly Doane, Department of Anthropology; Gayatri Reddy, Departments of Anthropology and Gender and Women’s Studies; Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Department of History; and Alice Weinreb from Northwestern University’s Department of History have already confirmed physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva as the keynote speaker.

This core group of academics also formed the Chicago Area Food Studies working group which will build toward and inform the conference, bringing a scholarly perspective to the important—and currently “hot”—topic of food.

Levine with Associate Director Linda Vavra. Photo by Joshua Clark

“When we started talking about both the conference and the working group, we wanted to get away from some of the popular discussions such as eating organic and who can afford that,” said Levine. “We wanted to go deeper to look at issues of production, distribution and consumption in terms of justice, equity and the politics of who gets what—and why.

“It’s a good thing that people are thinking about the food they eat,” Levine noted. “The ‘food movement’ that’s forming has many different aspects. One of them is this elitism that ‘I can eat what you can’t eat’, but there are also groups that are looking at food as a social justice issue. Food is a universal concern—too much of it, lack of it, not the right kind, all of those things.”

Old nutrition advice. Courtesy of USDA

Current nutrition advice. Courtesy of USDA

Levine brought her historian’s perspective to the issue of food politics in her 2008 examination of the national school lunch program. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program looks at the complex relationships between the nutrition movement, farm subsidies, Americanization of immigrant populations, wartime policies and other factors that led to the current program that many consider broken.

Levine’s book inspired and informed the work of documentary film makers Ernie Park and Michael Graziano, who in 2010 released Lunch Line, which was screened as the inaugural program of CAFS in April, 2011 and attracted a capacity crowd. CAFS is planning a series of brown bag lunches during the fall semester to explore a range of topics including food deserts, farmers’ markets, obesity, fast food and agricultural systems.

Courtesy of LunchLinefilm

Levine noted that many parents are increasingly worried about what is offered in school lunch programs, but they don’t always understand how these issues are systemic and fit into both an economic and political system. “There is also a tendency lately to see food as a moral issue. I think that’s a big mistake,” she said. “If we can start to see food as a political, not a moral, issue then we can start talking about it in ways that reflect social values and collective choices about what we as a society do.”

The Institute has been grappling with big issues since its founding in 1983. Events include conferences, workshops, seminars and lectures on a wide range of humanities topics with a speaker roster that boasts internationally renowned scholars. Recent highlights include programs by Judith Butler, Adolph L. Reed, Jr. and Linda Gordon.

The 2011-12 schedule features cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, author of Living in the End Times, for the Stanley Fish Lecture on Friday, October 21 and a feminist look at capitalism March 12-15, with Visiting Fellow Nancy Fraser of the New School for Social Research.

Six Working Groups call the Institute home. Scholars work in community across disciplines exploring issues such as health and society, class in America, visual culture, cultures and politics of difference, and law and politics. Working Groups have a variety of formats. Some sessions are based on pre-circulated readings; other sessions include lectures or discussions led by UIC faculty or visiting scholars.

I came into this position with the mission to think about how the humanities institute—and the humanities in general—can speak to a broader urban public. I don’t feel like it’s such a leap. There doesn’t have to be a great divide because the humanities have always addressed civic and philosophical issues of import.

Each year the Institute’s Fellowship Program sponsors UIC faculty members who receive a full year of release from teaching and administrative work, allowing them to pursue work on a specific research topic. Fellows are provided with office space—and community. “If you think about the way humanists work, they don’t need a lab or a microscope,” Levine explained. “They can do their work here and at the same time come together with people to discuss their work.” For the 2011-12 academic year, six Faculty Fellows will explore topics ranging from sacred art to immigrant activism. The Institute will also provide two dissertation fellowships, which carry stipends and tuition waivers. All Institute Fellows present their work in public programs.

"I came into this position with the mission to think about how the humanities institute—and the humanities in general—can speak to a broader urban public," said Levine. "I don’t feel like it’s such a leap. There doesn’t have to be a great divide because the humanities have always addressed civic and philosophical issues of import."

Connecting the dots between theory and practice, Levine is clear about the mission of the Institute. “The social scientists and the humanists are thinking about ‘how do you affect a political system or economic structures?’ In the case of food policy or public health, the nutritionists are working on that more individual level—ways of thinking about nutrition education and individual diets and physiology,” she said. “I’m a historian and I can say how we got here. Then, citizens can move forward and develop political strategies for change. It is our goal as a think tank to raise questions and present the context in which we can talk about these issues.”

To support the work and programs of the Institute for the Humanities, specify your gift to fund number 776925.