UH Hilo sociology class holds Food Studies Teach-In

In the sociology course “Food and Society,” students study food insecurity—a lack of access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life—and that theme was prominent at their teach-in event.

Class gathers for photo on the library lanai. Informational tables are on either side of the group. Library is in background. The professor at center, holds her dog.
Students in the sociology class “Food and Society” gather for a group photo at their “Food Studies Teach-In,” held April 26, 2023, on Mookini Library’s lanai. At center holding her pup is Assistant Professor of Sociology Ellen Meiser who teaches the course. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

Story and photos by Riana Jicha.

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo sociology students taking a course this semester on Food and Society held a Food Studies Teach-In on Mookini Library’s lanai April 26.

The course is taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology Ellen Meiser, who is teaching the students to view food and eating through the lens of sociology. The course’s main objective is for students to question their assumptions about food and the complex factors at play around food production.

“I want students to recognize that something as seemingly apolitical as food is actually imbued with a multitude of meanings, feelings, politics, histories, gender, and social inequalities,” says Meiser. She explains that throughout the semester, students have studied how identities are tied into food and how industrialization has impacted diets and food security. As part of the course, her students have volunteered at local food banks and participated in farm tours.

Food studies teach-in

Two women at a table with photos and information about 'ulu fruit.
From left, Adelie del Rosario and Malea Tesseneer at their informational table on ʻulu. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

The Food Studies Teach-In was an opportunity for students to share what they learned with the campus community. Eight informational tables were set up displaying several different focuses around food. A lot of the students’ studies focused on food insecurity—a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life—and that theme was part of the main presentations.

“In class, we have discussed that food is often treated as a commodity rather than a component of survival,” says Adelie del Rosario, presenting her and Malea Tesseneer’s assignment on ʻulu, food scarcity, and recipes.” This has caused an immense amount of damage for communities that are not properly invested in.”

View of the netore library lanai with the Food Studies Teach-In informational tables and people milling around looking at things on the tables.
The Food Studies Teach-In on April 26, 2023, held at Mookini Library’s lanai, was an opportunity for students from a “Food and Society” sociology class to share what they learned with the campus community. Eight informational tables were set up displaying several different focuses around food. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

A central concern for most students was families accessing necessary nutrition through Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), an electronic system that allows a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participant to pay for food using SNAP benefits. Students in the class say they wish to remove the stigma around those services and educate students on their eligibility and benefits.

Two students sit at their informational table with the library in the background.
From left, Eve Lokebol and Josephine Mischon sit at their informational table about student food resources. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

“SNAP benefits the economy, our project wants to show students that there are resources to help,” says Josephine Mischon, explaining her and Eve Lokebol‘s presentation on student food resources. “Most don’t even know they are eligible for assistance.”

From farm to shelf

Demand for products was another big topic among students; a core course objective was learning how food reaches store shelves. Students were educated on the process behind the demands of products, how food is grown, and the labor behind the harvest.

“It sounds simple, but there are so many complex factors at play for, say, an apple to reach our grocery store shelf and then for you to decide to buy it,” says Meiser. “Even the simplest products take extensive work.”

Two students stand near their poster presentation on food sovereignty.
From left, students Kaʻala Honua and Aaron Bernardio stand near their poster display on food sovereignty. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

Food sovereignty—that focuses on a food system where the people who produce the food also control the food production and distribution (as opposed to corporate agriculture controlling the system)—is also a big topic in the class. Students were given hands-on experience through a “Diet Project” where some chose to “decolonize their diets” shining a light on how food perpetuates inequality through a loss of cultural connection.

“Food sovereignty… shines a light on the need for connecting to local farms,” says student Kaʻala Honua about his project with Aaron Bernardio on food sovereignty and inequality. He says a way of supporting the movement is by buying locally and promoting SNAP benefits.

Local community organizations

The class also invited several local organizations, whose missions are to provide some form of food-related assistance to the East Hawaiʻi community, to interact with the students during the course and also set up informational tables at the teach-in. Meiser says HOPE Services, The Food Basket, and Ho‘ōla Farms were invited to connect students with local food organizations in the state.

HOPE Services and The Food Basket informed students of potential options for assistance. The Food Basket is also working with the class on content creation to reach even more students to help and educate.

Hoʻōla Farms’ informational table at the event was dedicated to promoting food preservation and sustainability. Anthony Florig, Hoʻōla Farms groundwork to grow program manager, says the organization offers many programs to teach students how to take and practice sustainable food habits.

Hale LakoUH Hilo’s on-campus food bank and basic supply resource for students, Hale Lako, was also represented at the teach-in. Informational materials at Hale Lako’s table informed students of resources that are right on campus.

“We are a resource right here on campus for food, we offer many things for free, some of those being food,” shares Catherina “Ui” Amantiad, education and prevention educator at UH Hilo’s Student Health and Wellness Program.

Two women sit at an informational table. One holds a photo of a fellow student who was unable to attend the event.
From left, students Rosalind McGarry and Carys Potter who holds a photo of student Shaena Jardin who was unable to attend the event. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

Course takeaways

Students taking the course shared a common sentiment about the transformative nature of the course and the Food Studies Teach-In. Most have had their perspectives changed on how food is used and experienced.

Carys Potter, a student in the class, says the number one takeaway from the course is how connected food is to society.

“Food and how we consume it is uniquely personal yet has societal implications and influences seen throughout cultures, communities, and the world,” she says.

Three men at an informational table, the man in front has a toddler on his lap.
Front, Brian Pilayo, and back from left, Colton Arruda, and Mark Olivera, at the Food Studies Teach-In, April 26, 2023, held at Mookini Library’s lanai, UH Hilo. (Riana Jicha/UH Hilo Stories)

By Riana Jicha, a double major in administration of justice and political science at UH Hilo.

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