Food for Thought

Food for Thought

St. Kate’s students tackle global food issues in their quest to become ethical and socially responsible leaders
By Pauline Oo

FOOD. It nourishes our bodies. It brings family and friends together. It evokes memories of childhood, grandma’s kitchen or nostalgia for cultural ancestry. Yet at St. Kate’s, food plays an additional role. It is a guide that shines a light on a wide range of issues, including poverty, climate change and global health. No wonder academic departments across the University are infusing it into their curriculum.

In communication studies, there’s a course built around food justice movements and the use of public rhetoric to fight for equity and sustainability. In psychology, eating — and the many circumstances that positively and negatively influence the behavior — is the subject of a class. The nutrition and exercise sciences department now offers a syllabus focused on food systems, in response to growing demand in understanding how food moves from seed to grocer. The list goes on.

“Of all the topics we can talk about, food is one of the most accessible,” says social work professor Katharine Hill. “Everybody eats.”

In two classes, “Social Policy for Social Change” and “Food, Faith and Social Transformation,” which she co-teaches with a theology colleague, Hill challenges her students to shop for groceries using only the equivalent of the U.S. food stamp allowance. While many find it hard to fill up or stave off hunger on about $5 per person a day, Hill says her simple lesson in food access and poverty opens eyes.

“My students have to make some pretty tough choices, and they have to ask themselves what’s important and what they are willing to give up,” explains Hill. “This exercise gives them a glimpse of the decision-making process millions of low-income Americans grapple with each day. Food is a social justice issue because if people don’t have enough to eat, a lot of things don’t matter.”


According to the United Nations World Food Programme, 795 million people — nearly 1 in 9 — go hungry. In fact, poor nutrition causes 50 percent of all child deaths in the developing world.

“We talk about food in all our core courses on some level because nutrition is tied to many health outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and hunger is a global health issue,” says Mary Hearst, director of St. Kate’s public health program. “We also examine the social, political, economic and geographic factors that influence food security around the world, who has it and who doesn’t, and what we can do to change it.”

To help her students see the bigger picture, Hearst leads a class exercise using the Dietary Diversity Assessment, which measures a person’s nutritional intake by food groupings that represent key nutritional components. She uses this questionnaire internationally, too, when researching nutrition and growth of children in low-income settings. Students then compare their own results with that international data.

“The purpose of this exercise is to get them to think more broadly,” Hearst explains. “I want students to think less about the broccoli they ate yesterday and more about what’s going on in the world around them that allows for, or doesn’t allow for, proper nutrition.”

When she used the tool in Africa, Hearst found the average Zambian diet lacking. It only included one or two food groups — compared to the five a typical American eats. Her students wonder about the discrepancy.

“Because Zambians lack money, they live in a rural environment and they are dependent on whatever crops they can grow, which sometimes they need to sell and not eat,” she says. “When our students start to look at patterns and distribution across populations, that’s when they can begin to influence change.”


Getting students fired up about sustainable food solutions and government regulations is a goal of Christina Meyer-Jax’s newest class, “Food Systems and Policy.” This course, created for St. Kate’s nutrition science major, evaluates the path that food travels from field to fork and how nutrition policies influence dietary recommendations and, ultimately, what’s on our plates.

“We’ve definitely increased the elements of social justice in our department because consumers today want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it,” says Meyer-Jax, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition.

In class, her students dive into a range of topics. They tackle complex issues such as the connection between overfishing and the American Heart Association’s call to increase omega-3 fatty acids intake. Since 2000, adults have been encouraged to eat more fish, especially oily species like mackerel, lake trout and salmon at least twice a week. However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 70 percent of the world’s fish species are already extinct or endangered, and some fish populations have fallen as much as 95 percent in the past decade.

“Fatty fish consumption for omega-3s is a good recommendation for a myriad of health-related issues,” says Meyer-Jax, “but it’s not sustainable. We’ve already out-fished our planet. If everyone actually followed that guideline, there would be no way to ecologically support it.”

Another topic she explores with students is food labels and the legislation behind them. They discuss the federal bill recently signed by President Obama that allows food companies to use electronic quick response (QR) codes — instead of text on packaging — to indicate if their product contains genetically modified organisms. The problem with QR, notes Meyer-Jax, is two-fold: most shoppers don’t regularly use it, and only smartphone owners can scan the code. She analyzes this disparity in food transparency from both a domestic and global level in her class.

“I knew coming to the University that I wanted to fight for access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food,” says dietetics major Anne Janzen ’16. “I now have more context to do this. St. Kate’s really opened my eyes to the whole food system. It taught me that if I want change to happen, I have to understand the system. Without that understanding, I’m not going to get very far.”


In this age of fair trade, all natural, organic, local, grass fed, cage free, humane certified and pasture raised, how can we keep our options straight and make the most ethical choices about the food we eat? Jeff Johnson, a St. Kate’s philosophy professor, says the answer begins with knowing ourselves. And he uses that maxim broadly in his classes.

“I encourage my students to think about what they value and to make decisions that best reflect those values,” he notes. Five years ago, Johnson brought the world of food into his syllabus because he “wanted to give them something to grapple with that directly relates to their everyday lives.”

When he talks about “effective altruism” — the concept that humans are called to try to do the most good they can to help others — he uses global food topics to drive home the idea.

“Let’s suppose that fair trade coffee is going to cost me $5 more than conventional coffee, but I buy it because my $5 could translate to an extra 13 cents a day for a worker,” Johnson explains. “With effective altruism, I would have to ask myself ‘is this the best decision I can make given the alternatives that I have?’ Do I spend that $5 supporting the fair trade worker or do I buy two mosquito nets that will protect three to four people from malaria for a few years?”

It’s a controversial view, he admits. And his students are “often perplexed by it.” Yet, he persists: “I want them to be aware and attentive to all the opportunities available, and I always remind them, ‘If you feel called to do the most good, you’ll sometimes find yourself making a choice that seems counterintuitive.’”

Together, they also ponder animal welfare and environmental issues related to food consumption. For example, consider buying tomatoes in Minnesota in January. Do you choose “locally grown” or “fresh from Florida”? Which is more environmentally sustainable?

Could it take more energy to keep greenhouses warm in winter climates than the carbon emissions created by transporting produce from one end of the country to the other? Or, consider buying chicken sourced through corporate farming or grass-fed beef from a local farmer. Which is more humane? Which produces fewer emissions?

According to a 2006 United Nations report, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of our total carbon emissions, which is more than all forms of transportation combined. And while chicken farming is the least harmful to the climate of all meats, it’s also one of the least humane.

“If you don’t travel a lot by airplane, the most impact you can have on the environment is by changing your diet,” says Johnson, a vegan and the faculty advisor for St. Kate’s student club Advocating for Animals. “Plus, there’s a lot of research coming out about the emotional lives of animals, and that’s another reason compelling us to reconsider our eating practices and standards.”

So, food. Yes, it’s more than survival and a reason to get together. It makes us think. St. Kate’s is transforming students into global, reflective and compassionate leaders by encouraging them to look closely at the plate in front of them.

St. Kate's students learn about the ins and outs of food labeling in nutrition classes.

St. Kate's students learn about the ins and outs of food labeling in nutrition classes.

A vegetable garden in Zambia. Photo by Mary Hearst, one of several St. Kate's faculty who connects food and social justice issues in her classes.

A vegetable garden in Zambia. Photo by Mary Hearst, one of several St. Kate's faculty who connects food and social justice issues in her classes.

 A balanced meal served at a school in Zambia. "For most of the children, this will be their only meal of the day," explains Hearst.

A balanced meal served at a school in Zambia. "For most of the children, this will be their only meal of the day," explains Hearst.

“Of all the topics we can talk about, food is one of the most accessible. Everybody eats.”

— Katharine Hill, St. Kate’s social work professor 

Pauline Oo
MAOL Cert ’14, MBA '16

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