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New course explores importance of food to history and everyday life

Historians study food for many reasons, but Michael Collins likes to single one out in particular.

“It speaks to the importance of the daily lives of common people,” said Collins, a Sacramento State lecturer of History. “It’s not just about military leaders, or political leaders, or the great figures in history. … Everybody needs to eat.”

This semester, Collins is teaching a new class that examines the crucial role food has played in the last five centuries of human history.

Michael Collins portrait
History Lecturer Michael Collins says the history of food "speaks to the importance of the daily lives of common people." (Courtesy Michael Collins)

The class, “A Global History of Food, 1500 to the Present,” has proven to be popular. It allows students to learn about history from a unique perspective and examine their own cultural backgrounds.

“The first and most important thing on my mind was to be able to reach out to … a broad student audience, to help them become aware of how important food has been in history, and how important food has been in their lives,” Collins said.

His background as a world historian with a particular focus on colonialism and power systems is a key reason he created the course.

“The more I researched British colonialism, the more I found that food supply issues and issues of starvation and scarcity were really important, but neglected,” he said.

Collins said that the History department has worked to develop courses that reflect the world’s diversity and engage students with their own identities.

Demand was high for the fully online course, which has 118 students enrolled. Collins opted to teach the course remotely after surveying other students and learning many prefer the flexibility of an online class.

The course began with lessons on the “Columbian Exchange,” the massive transfer of food and other goods between the New and Old Worlds that started a new era of colonialism.

Students recently learned about food’s role in revolutionary movements and nation building, such as the annual celebratory consumption of Haitian pumpkin soup. Enslaved Africans in Haiti were prohibited from eating the dish, and it subsequently became a symbol of their anti-colonial resistance and an important part of Haitian culture.

The course will end with classes on modern food issues such as sustainability, globalization, and food insecurity.

Students also will analyze historical recipes, and research and submit family recipes that reflect their own cultural and historic upbringings.

“There are so many of them that come from diverse backgrounds, different people from different class backgrounds, racial and ethnic groups, and I wanted to be able to help students understand that they have a place in history and their approach to food has a place in history,” Collins said.

The class has strong connections to both Sac State’s antiracism and inclusion work and its Anchor University initiative to build and strengthen relationships with the community.

In developing the course, Collins sought feedback from students and others, particularly people from underrepresented minority groups, about topics and issues they felt were not always addressed in history classes.

A bowl of soup joumou
Soup joumou, a traditional Haitian dish that became a symbol of the country’s revolution, is among the cuisines highlighted in the Global History of Food class. (iStockPhoto)


“Having more of those kinds of interests and concerns (included) really speaks to a broader restructuring of the ways in which we build our curriculum at Sac State,” Collins said.

He also looked to the community in building the curriculum, consulting with members of the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, the Whole Foods Foundation, and others about how a course like this could help prepare students for careers.

In addition to the online element, Jalen Withrow, a junior studying Criminal Justice, was attracted to the class because “it would be something interesting to talk about, (and) not something talked about in regular history classes.”

The son of a white father and Black mother, Withrow said he had not thought much about his family’s food history, but that the class, and its family recipe assignment, will provide an opportunity to change that.

“My grandma on my mother's side knows a bit more than my mother does. She's from Louisiana, and she always has her own little recipes she likes to make during certain times of the year,” he said. “So, I'm thinking I'll go to her. She always makes these different types of seafood dishes with crab, lobster, different kinds of meat.”

Because the course is lower division and open to non-History majors, Collins partnered with the Peer Academic Resource Center (PARC) to secure a supplemental instruction leader, senior History major X Pasha, to provide additional help and support for students.

Twice a week, Pasha holds hourlong small group activities and discussions via Zoom where students can review coursework.

Collins said he expects students to develop strong writing and research skills, but he also hopes they develop a better understanding of the power food holds in shaping society, culture, and history.

“Food can affect politics, can affect culture, can affect broad-scale economic change,” he said. “It’s of pervasive importance.”

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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