Dr. Amy Allen-Chabot teaches her students at Anne Arundel Community College how they can live healthy lifestyles while working toward a better food system. With a PhD in foods and nutrition from the University of Maryland, a passion for using nutrition to prevent chronic disease, and a love of nature, Allen-Chabot is creating a learning community based on the relationship between food and the environment. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Allen-Chabot about her background, the curriculum she has created, and the vital role education plays in shaping the food system.
Food Tank (FT): Are there any particular experiences in your life that shaped your interest in food issues?
Dr. Amy Allen-Chabot (AAC): I can’t say there is any one experience that shaped my interest in food and nutrition. Certainly the fact that my sister and mother were very overweight had an influence on me. As a teenager, I was anxious to prevent weight gain as I could see how difficult it was for them, both physically and mentally. I was also very focused on animal welfare from a young age. In college, I got interested in hunger and I was involved in boycotting Nestlé due to their sale of infant formula in developing countries. In recent years, my interest in food and nutrition has focused a lot on the influence of food on the environment. I think that this stems from a real love of nature and from my cherished hobby of birdwatching.
FT: How do you incorporate food issues into your courses?
AAC: In my nutrition course, I do briefly touch on issues such as hunger, genetic engineering, CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations], farm subsidies, etc., but the course focuses largely on nutrition and its impact on our health. Each fall, I connect one section of my class to a section of an English class and the two courses enroll the same group of students. We call this a learning community, and our name for this particular learning community is “Saving the Planet: One Bite at a Time.” In this collaboration, the English teacher, Dr. Susan Cohen, has typically had the students read The Omnivore’s Dilemma as the non-fiction text, My Year of Meats as the novel, and Urinetown as the play. In my nutrition class, I tie in the information that students are reading about in those texts and help explain the science behind the information. For example, the students will read the novel called My Year of Meats in the English class, and then we will research some of the claims made [in the book] in the science class. It’s a wonderful collaboration. We take the students to an organic farm on a field trip, and we also join them at the farmers market one Saturday morning to speak to the local farmers about issues around food. Being able to engage students through this intensive paired-course experience is so valuable.
FT: As a professor, what role do you feel that education can play in creating positive change in the food system?
AAC: Obviously, we won’t see much change if people don’t even know what the issues are. We feel it’s very important for students to know what the impact of their food choices is on the environment, human rights, health, etc. We also think students need to know that there are powerful forces helping to shape their food choices and those forces aren’t always focused on health or sustainability. Beyond that, we hope to create food activists, so the learning-community students explore issues and write advocacy letters as a start towards that long term goal.
FT: What books would you recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about food and agriculture?
AAC: I love The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Overeating, and Salt, Sugar, Fat.
FT: Is there a core message about food that you try to instill in your students?
AAC: I certainly want students to make choices that are healthful and allow for a sustainable food system. At the same time, I encourage students to “pat themselves on the back” when they make a good food choice rather than chastising themselves when they don’t. We also try to convey the importance of not accepting the status quo and becoming activists for change. We do try to show them through examples that small groups (like Food Tank) can join together and build coalitions that can literally change the course of history.