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How Food Shapes Who We Are

Posted April 17, 2015

April is National Food Month, and the UA School of Anthropology is highlighting its research about food as part of its centennial celebration.

During National Food Month, the UA School of Anthropology is hosting a series of events to share research about how food shapes our social and cultural lives.

During National Food Month, the UA School of Anthropology is hosting a series of events to share research about how food shapes our social and cultural lives.

Whether it is the Norwegian krumkake served during Christmas time, family gatherings around dim sum during the Lunar New Year or the preparation of croquembouche for weddings in France, food shapes not only our biology but also our social and cultural lives.

In an exploration of food, the University of Arizona School of Anthropology is presenting a cluster of events held April 23-25, which coincides with National Food Month.

“Food is central to the story of the human condition,” said Diane Austin, director of the UA School of Anthropology.

In the School of Anthropology, the study of food and nutrition is explored from many angles and methods, from archaeologists documenting how people lived and prepared food thousands of years ago to applied anthropologists tackling food insecurity around the globe today.

One of the events, “The Human Appetite: A Symposium on Food and Anthropology,” will be held April 24 featuring student and faculty researchers. Post-doctoral researcher Ashley Stinnett will discuss the art of heritage butchery; graduate student Victoria Moses will talk about early Roman animal sacrifice and consumption; and graduate student Amanda Hilton will speak about farming practices among the Ndee Bikiyaa farm project.

Also during the symposium, Ivy Pike, an associate professor of anthropology, will discuss diet and identity among East African pastoralists; Mamadou Baro, an anthropology professor, will cover food insecurity in the Sahel; and Maribel Alvarez, a fellow with the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, will explore the narratives of the revival of white Sonoran wheat.

“Food engages our senses, evokes a sense of place and offers a means for nurturing,” Austin said. “Our efforts to obtain it and how we think about it have structured human life from our earliest beginnings to the present day.”

Austin explained that food is so essential to the study of humans that it finds its way into most UA anthropologists’ work, past and present. For instance, take the narrative of how we grow, discard and eat food.

Since the 1930s, UA archaeologists and students have been excavating University Indian Ruins, a Hohokam site in the eastern Tucson basin. Researchers estimate the site was inhabited by the Hohokam people between A.D. 1200 and 1450, or later. By studying this and similar sites, archaeologists are able to unravel how these agriculturalists were able to use irrigation to grow corn, beans, squash and cotton.

In the 1970s, UA archaeologists pioneered the field of garbology, the study of modern trash. Led by the late Professor William Rathje, the Garbage Project found that the average American wastes as much as 25 percent of their food, a statistic that still gets cited.

Even food consumption can be studied in a variety of ways by anthropologists.

Baro and Tim Finan, researchers with the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the UA, focus on access to food.

Baro aims to reduce poverty and hunger, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and works with local communities to determine their own sustainable livelihood solutions.

And last January, Finan was at Dadaab and Kafuma refugee camps in Kenya, which are run by the United Nations, to help evaluate food distribution and to develop ways of increasing people’s ability to obtain food. Finan also works with Food for Peace, a U.S. government-sponsored food security program.

Finan also is heavily involved in designing and evaluating school feeding programs. He sees the anthropologist as providing a key role in the grand challenge of combating hunger and poverty.

“Anthropologists can help us understand the cultural influences that enhance or constrain consumption and access to food,” Finan said. “They can help us understand how communities and local households make decisions around food. When people receive food, do they sell part of it?  Do they share it with their neighbors? There is no other discipline that interviews people at the local level, that moves systematically among households, trying to determine what factors are affecting food security.”

Alvarez explores how people define themselves and others through daily food habits, traditions and practices.

As the director of the Southwest Folklife Alliance, which runs Tucson Meet Yourself, Alvarez also is involved in food from a community engagement perspective.

In her current research, Alvarez explores regional cooking and agriculture in Sonora, Mexico, and is involved in the revival of the use of Sonoran wheat by artisan bread makers.

Alvarez became interested in why we eat flour tortillas in northern Mexico and the Southwest when “90 percent of the tortillas in the world are corn tortillas.”

“Anthropology is about humanity, about illuminating the human condition,” she said, “and food is essential not only for our survival, but also to our human relationships.”

Source: University of Arizona

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