Teaching Food Policy at CUNY
by Nick Freudenberg
The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute was created in early 2016 to provide a university-wide forum for CUNY students, faculty and staff with interests in food policy and food justice. Our mission is to provide evidence that contributes to equitable, effective and sustainable solutions to the food problems facing New York and other cities.
CUNY has a wealth of actual and potential assets to promote more effective and equitable food policy in New York City. As voters, eaters, community leaders, parents and workers, its 270,000 students and their families have the potential to transform food environments and food policy in New York City. More than 30 CUNY certificate, community college, baccalaureate, Masters and doctoral programs prepare students in food studies, culinary management, nutrition, community health, public health, health education, environmental sciences, nursing, teaching, urban studies, and other fields that shape our city’s diet, nutritional health and food environments directly and indirectly. No educational institution educates more graduates for the city’s food workforce than CUNY. And several dozen of CUNY’s 6,700 full-time faculty and many more part-time faculty have food policy at the center of their academic and scholarly work.
One specific way that CUNY faculty can contribute to the creation of healthier, more equitable and sustainable food environments in New York City is by teaching about food policy in our health, social science, natural science and other classes. In this commentary, I suggest five approaches to teaching about food policy that come from my almost forty years’ experience teaching undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students about, health, food and policy. At the end of this post there are several recent CUNY Urban Food Policy reports that can serve as reading assignments in classes that discuss food policy or food justice.
To provide a common framework for this discussion, I briefly define several key terms. Food policy describes the laws, regulations and organizational practices that govern the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food.1 Food environment describes the collective physical, economic, policy and socio-cultural surroundings, opportunities and conditions that influence people’s food and beverage choices and nutritional status. It includes food composition, food labelling, food promotion, food prices, food provision in schools and other settings, food availability and trade policies affecting food availability, price and quality.2 Food justice describes communities and populations exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food.3 Helping students to explore the connections between food and the concepts and practice of policy, neighborhood environments and justice is at the heart of teaching about food policy.
Tips for Teaching about Food Policy
1. Use students’ life experience as eaters, family members, NYC residents and activists as the starting point for teaching about food policy.
Unlike some of the subjects that come up in our classrooms, every student has a lifetime experience eating, buying, and preparing food; living in at least one and sometimes many food cultures; and learning about food from family, peers, schools, communities and food industry advertisements. By helping students to critically analyze these experiences, faculty can then learn to use theories, disciplines, and evidence to compare their perceptions with other perspectives. Eliciting the experiences of learners not only engages their interest, it enables them to connect academic insights to their daily lives, a characteristic of “sticky” education.
For example, these questions could spark discussions in classes at various levels and disciplines:
- How does the food you eat differ from what your parents and grandparents ate when they were your age? What might account for those differences?
- How does food shopping in the neighborhood where you live differ from shopping in a much wealthier neighborhood? How is it the same? How does it differ from the experience in a much poorer neighborhood? What do you think explains those differences?
- Using one specific food that you ate yesterday, find out as much as you can about where that food is grown and processed, how it is distributed and what hands touch the product between the farm, the factory and your mouth. What does this tell you about globalization and food production?
- President Trump and some legislators in Congress are proposing cuts in funding for SNAP (Food Stamps) and other public food programs and tightening eligibility requirements. What are the arguments for these changes? Against? What do you think? Why? How do you think the proposed changes would affect people in your community?
- Describe a TV food commercial you have seen in the last week. What were the facts the ad presented? What emotions did it use? How accurate was this ad? How effective in persuading you to buy the product?
2. Put the diversity of CUNY students and their life experiences at the center of your teaching.
For some courses, the diversity of CUNY students can be a challenge, making it difficult for the instructor to find a level and approach that works for all. In teaching about food and food policy, however, that diversity can become an invaluable resource. Almost every CUNY classroom has students who have grown up or live in at least a dozen different food cultures and food environments. By developing assignments that encourage students to compare their experiences and perspectives with those of other students, we teach them to widen their horizons, test theories and frameworks proposed in class readings and discussions, and search for underlying structures that influence diet across populations and communities. Questions like the ones listed above can serve as a starting point for such comparative analyses.
3. Help students understand how science, public policy, economics, politics and culture interact to influence diet and food environments.
Food provides a natural starting point for interdisciplinary and experiential learning, two types of education valued at CUNY. Understanding food policy requires integrating perspective from the natural sciences (How do our genes influence food tastes? How does food composition shape health and diseases?) and the social sciences (How does culture influence food choices? What role do market forces play in shaping nutritional health?). Because food is everywhere, students can learn about food and food policy by investigating their day-to-day experiences. Collecting data though interviews with family and peers, supermarket visits, or observations of community food programs can enable students to apply and test class readings and lectures in the real world. The reports and policy briefs from our Institute listed below provide students and faculty with evidence extracted from our own community and policy studies.
4. Connect students to civic processes that they can continue to participate in beyond your course and their time at CUNY.
An important goal of a CUNY education is to prepare our students to become engaged, responsible participating members of our society. Using our classrooms to educate students about the processes and institutions that shape city, state and federal policy—including food policy—can help to achieve that goal. For some classes and students, our Institute’s report on food governance in New York City can be a starting point for that education.4 Assigning students to attend and report to the class on Community Board meetings or City Council hearings, write op eds or letters to their elected representatives on SNAP or school lunch policy, or act as a participant-observer in community food advocacy campaigns educates them while preparing them to be responsible residents of our city after they graduate.
5. Develop food policy literacy.
Food literacy has been defined as the “positive relationship built through social, cultural, and environmental experiences with food enabling people to make decisions that support health.”5 We define food policy literacy as having the knowledge, skills and resources to participate effectively in shaping food policy and food environments and promoting food justice. CUNY has the potential to make lasting contributions to stronger and more effective food policy in New York City by developing strategies to increase food policy literacy in New York City.
In the coming year, the CUNY Institute for Urban Food Policy is launching a CUNY Food Policy Literacy Initiative. We invite CUNY faculty, students and staff –and others in New York City to help:
- Identify Ten Things Every New Yorker Needs to Know about Food Policy
- Develop an inventory of current New York City community, academic and other efforts to promote food policy literacy and identify strengths and weaknesses of these existing initiatives
- Explore how CUNY can act across campuses, departments and disciplines to promote food policy literacy in New York City.
In future issues of Food Policy Monitor, we’ll say more about this initiative and invite readers to suggest additional activities.
The CUNY Food Collaboratory: A Resource for Teaching about Food Policy
The CUNY Food Collaboratory is a community of CUNY faculty, staff and students who share interests in food policy, food justice, nutrition and related fields. More than 30 CUNY faculty, staff and graduate students and their interests in food policy are listed. Readers can use this list to find CUNY faculty who are engaged in food-related research, service or teaching work. To add your name or request changes to the information listed, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that this resource is accessible through the CUNY Academic Commons social network which is open only to faculty, staff, and graduate students with a CUNY email account.
A selection of CUNY Urban Food Policy Articles and Reports to Use to Teach About Food Policy
Freudenberg N, Cohen N, Poppendieck J, Willingham C. Food Policy in New York City Since 2008: Lessons for the Next Decade. New York: CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, 2018. This report examines changes in food policy in New York City since 2008 and suggests strategies for strengthening equitable and effective food policy in the coming decade. Short Version
Willingham C, Rafalow A, Lindstrom L, Freudenberg N. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute Guide to Food Governance in New York City. CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, 2017. This report provides an overview of how food policy gets made in New York City.
Freudenberg N, Cohen N, Poppendieck J, Willingham C. Ten Years of Food Policy Governance in New York City: Lessons for the Next Decade. Fordham Urban Law Journal 2017; 45:951. This article from a law journal summarizes findings from the two reports listed above.
Cohen N. Feeding or Starving Gentrification: The Role of Food Policy. CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, 2018. This policy brief discusses the relationships between food and gentrification and identifies ten opportunities for advocates to shape the process.
Vignola E, Ruiz-Navarro P, Freudenberg N. Expanding Immigrant Access to Food Benefits in New York City: Defining Roles for City and State Government. CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, 2018. This report examines how the intersection of two trends—restricting immigration and cutting back food assistance—is affecting immigrants in New York City and suggests strategies to counteract federal efforts to limit access.
Freudenberg N, Silver M, Hirsch L, Cohen N. 2016. The good food jobs nexus: A strategy for promoting health, employment, and economic development. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2016; 6(2): 283–301. This article explores the concept of Good Food Jobs in New York City, jobs that offer decent wages, good working conditions and increase access to healthy food in low-income communities
Silver M, Bediako A, Capers T, Kirac A, Freudenberg N. Creating integrated strategies for increasing access to healthy affordable food in urban communities: a case study of intersecting food initiatives. Journal of Urban Health. 2017 Aug 1;94(4):482-93. This case study shows how one Central Brooklyn community organization, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, has launched multiple coordinated food initiatives in order to reduce the burden of food-related health problems and boost community development
Freudenberg N, Cohen N, Fuster MR, Garza S, Johnson D, Poppendieck J, Rafalow A, Sheldon M, Silver M, Srivastava A. Eating in East Harlem: An Assessment of Changing Foodscapes in Community District 11, 2000-2015. CUNY School of Public Health, 2016.
For a full list of CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute policy briefs and reports, click here.
Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the CUNY School of Public Health and the Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
1 Willingham C, Rafalow A, Lindstrom L, Freudenberg N. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute Guide to Food Governance in New York City. CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, 2017.
2 Swinburn B, Dominick C, Vandevijvere S. Benchmarking food environments: experts' assessments of policy gaps and priorities for the New Zealand Government. University of Auckland, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, School of Population Health; 2014.
3 Just Food. What is Food Justice? http://justfood.org/advocacy/what-is-food-justice
4 Willingham C, Rafalow A, Lindstrom L, Freudenberg N. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute Guide to Food Governance in New York City. CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, 2017.
5 Cullen T, Hatch J, Martin W, Higgins JW, Sheppard R. Food literacy: definition and framework for action. Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research. 2015;76(3):140-5.