Instructor Spotlight: Jessie Thuma

The ExCollege caught up with Jessie Thuma, the Visiting Lecturer behind EXP-0002: Power on the Plate: Food and Inequity in America
Jessie Thuma

Tell us about your background and what inspired you to teach this course

I got interested in this topic when I was in college at the University of Virginia and spent a summer doing research on the Eastern Shore. I was studying bees on local farms and how rapid sea level rise is impacting pollinator communities. The summer heat was brutal with a heat index of 110F most days. Farmers that I worked with talked openly about how they sprayed their fields with pesticides so much that they did not expect me to find bees on their property, and worried about failing crops, paying their workers, and competing with other growers. Coming from Boston, I realized I had zero idea what kind of work went into growing our food until that summer.

After graduating from UVA, I spent a year volunteering as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) with a literacy and drop-out intervention program in North Carolina called High Point LEAP. We worked in one of the largest food deserts in the country. Though our main priority was education, much of our work revolved around food distribution and food access. Food insecurity disproportionately impacts women, children, and communities of color, and that was blatantly obvious in the community where we worked. But it was also an important learning moment to see how many grassroots organizations were trying to address issues of food insecurity with solutions designed by local community members like urban gardens and mobile food markets. These efforts were far more successful than blanket policies attempting to do the same without knowing the community.

My current research into agricultural sustainability through pollinator conservation reflects these experiences, and now I get to explore new parts of this topic and learn from students through teaching this class.

What’s one invisible part of food systems that more people should be aware of?

One of the first places to look is at who actually grows our food. Most of the farm workers in the US are migrant farm hands, many from Mexico or from Central and South American countries working on the H-2A visa. These workers are not citizens and have very little worker protection. Most are paid far below minimum wage, making just a few cents for every pound of produce they harvest. I would recommend the movie Food Chains (available on YouTube) for anyone wanting to learn more. I would also recommend the book “The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket” by Benjamin Lorr for a closer look at how food is grown, sourced, and distributed in the US.

We in the US like very cheap and very abundant food. But cheap food comes at a cost, and it is the farm hands, factory workers, and truck drivers that bear the brunt of that cost through hardly livable wages and often back-breaking labor.

Your course discusses how food culture influences/reinforces cultural norms. Can you talk a little about what this means and how we see this in our daily lives?

These last few weeks we have been discussing how our daily food routines as consumers can reinforce or challenge traditional gender roles. For example, women do far more home cooking than men both in the US and around the world. Domestic cooking has long been thought of as an innately feminine task associated with caregiving and service to others. We often consider women to be natural cooks when in reality, girls and women are expected to learn to cook from a young age while boys are less likely to be invited into the kitchen to learn. Cooking and providing healthy meals is intrinsically linked to motherhood and mothers—not fathers—are often judged by their children’s body size and diets.

But cooking and our diets also offer a space to push back against traditional gender roles. More and more college- and high school-educated men are starting to take up cooking as a way to be self-sufficient and a good partner, while more women are turning cooking into paid careers as chefs, food bloggers and cookbook-writers. I think that in the next decade we will see far more men taking on cooking at home while more women can pursue cooking as paid work or as a space of enjoyment and self-expression rather than a chore.

What is something that you are looking forward to in your course later in the semester?

I’m excited to talk about the ways that food has been used as a tool for social change. Food has played an important role in social movements like civil rights and women’s liberation in the 70s as a symbol of various belief systems. The term “the personal is political” was coined around this period, and what better embodies that message than food?

What do you hope that students will take away from your course?

I want students to find something that surprises them or that speaks to their own experiences in a way they haven’t seen put into words before. I want them to think differently about their food, why they make certain food choices, why they buy certain products over others. And to consider other experiences with food that are far different from their own. Food is universal and yet incredibly personal, and the way we eat reflects our life experiences, our values, and who we want to be. My hope is that in learning about the social issues that exist within our food system, students have the tools to pursue local (or larger) improvements towards a just system.

Jessie Thuma is a fourth-year Biology PhD candidate in the Starks Lab at Tufts, studying how nutrient pollution and other factors affect pollinator foraging behavior and reproductive success. With a background in environmental science and women, gender, and sexuality studies prior to coming to Tufts, she served as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) in North Carolina working with a dropout intervention and food distribution program. Her research is driven by her interest in sustainable agriculture and food security.