CRD 20    —    CRD 142    —    CRD 244    —    GEO 200C


CRD 20: Food Systems

The grapes that sit upon the supermarket shelves are mute; we cannot see the fingerprints of exploitation upon them or tell immediately what part of the world they are from. We can, by further enquiry, lift the veil on this geographical and social ignorance and make ourselves aware of these issues (as we do when we engage in a consumer boycott of nonunion or South African grapes). But in so doing we find we have to go behind and beyond what the market itself reveals in order to understand how society is working.

        — David Harvey (1990: 423)

The food that overflows our market shelves and fills our tables is harvested by men, women, and children who often cannot satisfy their own hunger.

        — César Chávez (cited in Brown and Getz 2011: 122)

Food touches everything.  Food is the foundation of every economy.  It is a central pawn in political strategies of states and households.  Food marks social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions.  Eating is an endlessly evolving enactment of gender, family, and community relationships. ...  Food is life, and life can be studied and understood through food.

        — Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (1997: 1)

It could plausibly be argued that changes in diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.

        — George Orwell (1937: 82)

Ever think about your food, where it comes from, and how it got to your plate? Do you wonder about who produces it, what their farms are like, and what they get out of the deal? Why do so many go hungry in our world while others can afford to buy “jet fresh” produce flown in from all corners of the globe? Why did food start traveling so far, with farmers and consumers often thousands of miles apart? Why has a large portion of the population in wealthier nations been getting heavier, and what should we do about it? Does the fair trade coffee you drink (or consider drinking) actually make a difference for small coffee farmers? Should you eat organic, or become a vegetarian, a vegan, or a “locavore”? Why are farmworkers an exploited segment of the population, what challenges exist in organizing for social justice, and where have there been successes? Who benefits most, and who and what is most harmed, by the current social and environmental arrangements that put food on our plates? And, perhaps most importantly, what are people doing to address these issues and problems? If you are interested in these and related questions, CRD 20: Food Systems is a course for you.

Through the lens of the social sciences, this course addresses these and other questions. It focuses on the whole agri-food system from farm to fork (and back again) to assess the possibilities for sustainability and equity. The course emphasizes the societal context of food systems by positioning them within a capitalist economy and looking at the broader social purpose of food systems, including the often contradictory goals of nourishment, productivity, profit, and exerting power. We examine historical and geographical contexts and aim to understand the dialectic between food systems and producers’ livelihoods, communities, and the environment. Students are introduced to a number of social science perspectives and concepts drawn largely from anthropology, geography, and sociology to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of food systems.

Students use laboratory time to develop knowledge and skills to analyze locations and positions within food systems. Labs are used for research conducted through fieldwork to explore the positions of different people in the food system, for participatory activities, and for presentations and wide-ranging discussion. We will visit farms, food processors and distributors, retail locations, and places of consumption and disposal, most of which are determined by student input.

CRD 20 complements Plant Sciences (PLS) 15: Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture, by providing a largely social science perspective on food and agriculture within the context of an interdisciplinary understanding of sustainability. Both courses form the introduction to the major in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at UC Davis.


Brown, S., and C. Getz. 2011. Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In Cultivating food justice: race, class, and sustainability, eds. A. H. Alkon and J. Agyeman, 121-146. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. 1997. Introduction. In Food and culture: a reader, pp. 1-8, edited by C. Counihan and P. Van Esterik. New York: Routledge.

Harvey, D. 1990. Between space and time: reflections on the geographical imagination. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80 (3):418-434.

Orwell, George. 1937. The road to Wigan Pier. London: V. Gollancz, Ltd.

Course Materials

• Fall 2015:


Lab Manual Version 3.5

Note to instructors: I have full TA instructions for running each lab.  Please contact me to request it.



VARK Assessment


Food Diary

Reflective Essay

Resource Access


  1. Fall 2013

  2. Fall 2012

  3. Fall 2011

  4. Fall 2010

  5. Fall 2009

  6. Fall 2008