Special Academic Initiative: Food For Thought

Where does our food come from? Most of us can provide little more of an answer than "from the grocery store." Yet media headlines and public debates often emphasize pressing issues involving food, from eating disorders and mad cow disease to genetically modified food and threats of ecoterrorism. Increasingly, it has become difficult and even unwise to take for granted the foods that we eat.

Understanding our food sources raises many questions of national and global significance. How will rising petroleum costs affect the availability and cost of food? What is the impact of current farming practices on the environment? How do the cultural meanings we associate with food influence eating habits? Does the loss of small landholding farmers diminish the foundation of a democratic society?

Food-related issues are particularly salient in the local community, a region rich in agriculture as a way of life and a basis of the economy. For example, the shift toward industrial agriculture has made it difficult for family farmers to compete in the global marketplace; a number of Kenyon employees hold jobs at the College in order to provide the income necessary to keep their farms financially viable. As aging farmers sell out to developers, the cornfields and livestock pastures that mark a rural landscape soon give way to residential sprawl and strip malls.

Food for Thought is a special initiative to explore food, farming, and rural life. As the accompanying list of courses suggests, these subjects touch virtually every aspect of the curriculum. For students, taking several of these courses represents an opportunity both to enrich understanding and to forge the cross-disciplinary connections that are central to liberal education. Many of these courses offer the additional opportunity to engage the surrounding community through original scholarly and creative work, broadening students' horizons beyond Gambier Hill and deepening their connection to this place.

Much of the work accomplished in these courses will contribute to an ambitious public project to build a sustainable market for foods produced in and around Knox County. Students and faculty are conducting research on local food supplies and consumer buying habits, developing a local food warehouse and retail outlet in Mount Vernon, and creating exhibits to raise public understanding about the many ways our food choices affect us as individuals and as a society.

For additional information about Food for Thought, visit the Kenyon Rural Life Initiative website. To learn more about becoming involved in this initiative, contact Professor Bruce Hardy, professor of anthropology.


Each of these courses addresses themes relevant to Food for Thought. In some cases, the subject matter is central to the entire course; in others, it represents a distinct unit. Please refer to the brief description accompanying each listing, which notes the particular topics examined in the course. Complete course descriptions may be found in the listings for each department or program. For additional information, please contact the relevant faculty member. Independent study and summer research offer additional opportunities for academic work; see Professor Hardy for details.

ANTH 320 Anthropology of Food

Credit: .5 unit

Through cross-cultural comparisons, this course investigates the central role food plays in human biology and culture, including the effects of social, political, and economic issues on human nutrition.

CHEM 108 Solar Energy

Credit: .5 unit

Modern agricultural methods are heavily dependent on petroleum and natural gas; this course explores our global energy challenges from fossil fuels to solar energy alternatives.

ECON 336 Environmental Economics

Credit: .5 unit

This course uses economic analysis to better understand the nature of environmental issues such as pollution and the allocation of natural resources.  It specifically examines the economics of fisheries. Examines the economics of fisheries.

ENVS 112 Introduction to Environmental Studies

Credit: .5 unit

This course examines sustainable development, particularly sustainable agriculture, as an important component of our general investigation of the effects of human population size on the environment.

ENVS 240 Permaculture and Homestead Winter Farming

Credit: .5 unit

This course intends to explore the principles of permaculture that link ecology, sustainability and community to farming.

ENVS 253 Sustainable Agriculture

Credit: .5 unit

Students will work five hours a week on a local farm and meet weekly with the instructor to discuss readings and their farm experience.

ENVS 342 Disease Ecology

Credit: .5 unit

To understand the impacts of disease, this course examines the effects of disease on ecosystems (including humans) and explores the ecological and evolutionary processes that drive disease dynamics. This course looks at the role of domestic animals (and their production) and human — wildlife — domestic animal infectious disease. 

ENVS 461 Seminar in Environmental Studies

Credit: .5 unit

A portion of this class will be devoted to exploring patterns of changing land-use, including the conversion of agricultural land to suburban and commercial development, and how this leads to a host of environmental effects including loss of biodiversity, changes in soil quality, and a breakdown of the rural community.

HIST 360 Corn, Farming and the Roots of American Cultures

Credit: .5 unit

This course evaluates the ways in which North American peoples (Natives and not) have evolved through corn in terms of population growth and cultural values from pre-Columbian America to the rise of large agribusinesses such as Cargill.

HIST 481 Feast, Fast, Famine

Credit: .5 unit

This course explores the cultural, economic, and ecological significance of food in premodern Europe, touching on topics ranging from the religious significance of food, to medieval women, to the economic and demographic consequences of famine.

PHIL 115 Practical Issues in Ethics

Credit: .5 unit

Factory farming, vegetarianism, and the ecology of rural life are among the ethical issues discussed in the course.

SOCY 104 Identity in American Society

Credit: .5 unit

The course focuses on rural life in examining issues of identity and society in contemporary America.

SOCY 233 Sociology of Food

Credit: .5 unit

This course examines the social world we live in by examining what we eat, how we eat it, where we buy it, how much it costs, who prepares it, who produces it, and how.