Students + Campus

Issues of food and gender to take the spotlight at UCLA

Two new professors shed light on the social impacts of food

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Hungry Man
Inazakira/Flickr

Gender assumptions are inherent in the marketing of food.

New faculty, curriculum and a lecture series presented by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women are encouraging students to examine the social meanings and gender assumptions inherent in food, from its production, to the way it is marketed and consumed.   

On Wednesday Oct. 26, in conjunction with UCLA’s Food Week and in partnership with the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, the center will highlight new gender studies adjunct assistant professor Rachel Vaughn as she talks about her book-in-progress “Talking Trash: Oral Histories of Food In/Security from the Margins of a Dumpster.”

Vaughn researches food precarity in North America through oral history interviews with dumpster divers and waste pickers — many of whom recover and use food that was thrown away. Her Food Week talk will examine how dumpster divers challenge assumptions about what counts as “real” or “edible” food, and how food salvage can enforce gender, race and class stereotypes.

This fall Vaughn began teaching an undergraduate course titled “Race, Class and Gender in Globalized American Foodways.”

“It encompasses production, consumption, cultural meanings of food and eating, historical and technological shifts, giving students a way to talk about systems and overlapping concepts in gender studies like body politics and identity,” she said. “I think it will complement the interdisciplinary food studies work being implemented here on campus.”

Another new faculty member, Sarah Tracy, a gender studies professor who also has an appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, brings nearly a decade of research into food science and food politics.

This spring Tracy will teach a course titled “Food, Power, Money, Science,” which will look at the field of nutrition and technological advancements in food science through a critical and historical framework.  

“Race, class, gender and increasingly, sexuality, have become a key part of reflections on American food culture,” she said.

In her class, students will use popular food products and dietary trends to connect research in nutrition, physiology, microbiology and sensory science with familiar themes of identity and community, but also with the business of pleasure, pain, disgust and guilt.

Tracy’s particular research focus has been on umami, the “savory delicious” taste that recent studies have proclaimed as another basic taste sensation. She will be talking about her forthcoming book, eight years in the making, “Delicious: A History of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and Umami, the Fifth Taste Sensation” on Nov. 9.

MSG is an often-vilified food additive with a complex and controversial history and chemical makeup —and it’s one way of experiencing umami taste. Tracy’s research shows that the way we think about this common flavor enhancer reflects attitudes about race, class, gender and the politics of eating. In the United States, MSG became essential to processed and convenience foods — a cornerstone of postwar affluence.

“Food is about more than just sustaining bodies,” Tracy said. “Now with the discovery of mechanisms for sensing umami, MSG straddles feminized and masculinized spaces: the home, where a moral guardian — often female — is on the hook to be vigilant for health risks and wins in eating, and the professional food lab, where umami has been of tremendous interest to heavy-hitting celebrity chefs — who are usually male, and usually straight, and food companies. MSG as an ingredient acts on us, not on our food... So, is it making us feel bad, or good?”

A third event sponsored by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women will be held in April, when visiting scholar Diana Garvin of Cornell University discusses her research into the ways in which fascist Italy used the reinforcement of gender roles around food to assert control over food sources and women’s bodies.

Exploring the complexities of gender and food is a new investment for UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women and gender studies. Faculty think it is especially important as campus academic units seek to unite interdisciplinary focus around the ethics and science of food; and campus wellness programs seek to encourage students to prioritize their personal health as well as that of the planet.

Monday, Oct. 24 is National Food Day and kicks off a week of food-related programming from the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, including the following events and activities.

Panel discussion and flexitarian lunch
Monday, Oct. 24
12 to 1:30 p.m.
Hershey Hall 158
Space is limited RSVP.

A conversation with experts in nutrition, environmental sustainability and alternative protein with Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian, at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and assistant adjunct professor in the Fielding School of Public Health; Elliot “Big Dog” Mermel, CEO and cofounder of Coalo Valley Farms; Jennifer Jay, professor of civil and environmental engineering and a member of the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability. Wendy Slusser, associate vice provost of the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative will moderate. A “flexitarian” lunch will provided, including samples of chocolate-covered crickets from Coalo Valley Farms.

Lecture and Mediterranean lunch
Tuesday, Oct. 25
12 to 1 p.m.
Los Angeles Tennis Center Straus Clubhouse
Space is limited, RSVP at eatwell@ucla.edu.

Mayer, a professor of gastroenterology at UCLA, will discuss his recent book, “The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health.” This event also includes a screening of seven food-focused student films and a Mediterranean-inspired lunch.

Hidden in Plain Bite: The Surprising Impact of Our Food Choices
Tuesday, Oct. 25
2 p.m. Kaufman Hall 208

Nora Kramer of the Factory Farm Awareness Coalition will lead a talk. Hosted by UCLA Food and Social Justice Working Group.

Talk and Fighting Hunger Fair
Wednesday, Oct. 26
12:30 to 2 p.m.
Ackerman Grand Ballroom

Rachel Vaughn will discuss the issues from her forthcoming book about dumpster diving.  The Fighting Hunger Fair features campus and community groups who do activist and research work around food insecurity. Hosted by the Center for the Study of Women.

Campus farmer’s market and cooking demonstration
Wednesday, Oct. 26
2:30 to 5 p.m.
Bruin Plaza

There will be food for purchase at the farmer’s market plus a cooking demo from the public health nutrition club. They’ll be sharing recipes made with seasonal produce and Dannon Greek yogurt.

Cooking demonstration
Sunday, Oct. 30
1 to 3 p.m.
​University Village Apartments

A cooking demo and knife skills workshop from the public health nutrition club, followed by a weekly distribution of seasonal produce for all University Village residents.

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