Pilot literature class teaches students to understand food, live off the land


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan attempts to answer the question “What should we have for dinner?” As the title suggests, deciding what to eat — especially when faced with so many choices — is not as straightforward as it once was.

Sometimes, Pollan argues, connecting the ingredients in our diet back to the natural world takes more imagination than science.

This past spring, 19 Penn State students enrolled in a pilot offering of the class ENG 297C: Eating Your Ecology to make those connections, learning first-hand how our food is farmed and how we can make better food choiceNew classs.

Students read Pollan’s and other food narratives in this course offering, using literature as a vehicle to better understand food.

“Food is a wonderfully immediate teaching tool,” said instructor Kim Andrews. “We encounter it every day, it’s tangible, it’s in front of us, and we can experience it with all five senses. Reading about food, I believe, only enhances that sensual experience.”


To supplement class readings such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser‘s Fast Food Nation and Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, among others, the class visited local farms with different working models to learn about sustainable food production and distribution.

A program offered by Penn State Outreach and the Penn State Department of English, Eating Your Ecology harvested as many of its lessons from the field as it did from the classroom.

“It’s all too easy to intellectualize environmental problems in a classroom setting,” said Andrews. “Eating Your Ecology is a class in which the everyday, nearly-mechanized task of eating becomes a lens through which we can look at the wider concerns of environmentalism.”


Those environmental concerns are at the heart of Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — the chronicle of the year she and her family spent living as “locavores,” eating only what they could grow or source from local, sustainable farms.

Kingsolver and her family labored among the staked plants and row crops in order to cut down on their consumerism with the added benefit of knowing exactly where each meal came from.

Students got the chance to labor in someone like Kingsolver’s mud boots during trips to area farms, some which even supply our local farmers markets and community-supported agriculture initiatives.

Field work

The class spent a working weekend playing farmer: tilling, planting, weeding and installing irrigation at Mystic Springs organic vegetable farm in Union County, Pa.; visited Fiedler Farm near Aaronsburg, Pa., in the Penns Valley area; and toured Blue Rooster Farm in Waterford in south central Pennsylvania.

When not out in the field, students brought the field to class. Each week, students shared edibles with their fellow foodies, abiding by the caveat that each food be something made from locally-sourced ingredients produced using organic or sustainable farming methods.

The semester culminated with a class dinner, which the students cooked, again using only locally sourced and organic ingredients. The course’s success has resulted in a repeat offering in the spring.

For more information, visit the pilot course website at www.outreach.psu.edu/programs/eating-your-ecology.


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