Food Systems 101
An Introduction to the Politics of Food & Beverage
Food Systems 101 is Studio ATAO's first full curriculum examining the connection between the systems of food and beverage in the United States explicitly through a social justice lens. This curriculum offers those working within the food, beverage, and hospitality community an accessible, yet comprehensive, understanding of the inherent politics of the systems that affect them every day.
More than 19 million people work within the U.S. food system, encompassing everything from agricultural production to branded spirits, food magazines to bars. However, there remains a critical gap in who receives formal food education. While some higher education institutions increasingly cover food systems and their history, the existing resources are traditionally academic, often containing gaps and lacking cultural relevance and accessibility to the majority of individuals working within the system itself. Food and beverage education, if/when discussed in school systems, focuses largely on access and ‘healthy eating,’ both of which are important themes but not thoroughly explored within the larger context of social justice.
We believe that food is inherently political in every way. That is, it informs the traditional structures which govern our society and ultimately, how we relate to one another. Food and drink has always served as a mechanism for control. Thus, when confronting the repercussions of the U.S. food system, it is critical to probe deeper into the power, privilege, and decision-making processes underpinning areas such as:
From Food Apartheid to Food Sovereignty: What is accessible for who to eat and drink, and who makes these decisions? What options are, or are not, available to marginalized communities, and why?
Agriculture & the Global Supply Chain: Who owns the land that supplies the raw ingredients for our food, wine, spirits? What supply chains are, or are not available, for certain crops?
Industrialization & Food Manufacturing: Who is profiting from the mainstream appeal of certain foods and beverages? What is responsible protocol when it comes to mass market consumption? What cultures/history have been erased through these processes?
Media, Representation, and Culture: What is considered ‘superior,’ ‘healthy,’ and ‘authentic’? What sort of messaging is used to discuss and encourage consumption?
The Food, Beverage, & Hospitality Industry: Who has access to the capital to own and operate hospitality businesses? How do the historic and current structures of the FBH industry connect directly back to enslavement? How do the other core topics (agriculture, distribution, media, food access, etc.) contribute directly to an inequitable FBH industry?
Food Policy & Geopolitical Landscapes: What are the implicit agendas of policies that govern spaces like school cafeterias, hospitals, and the prison industrial complex? What are the pitfalls of mandated metrics, such as USDA Organic certifications?
The way we eat and drink dictates how we have and continue to interact with each other on a global scale, within our communities, and on an individual basis. All of these truths reinforce the significance of having a full understanding and meaning of the ways in which we occupy space within the food system. Education becomes an even more critical ingredient to urgently address and cultivate radical food systems change from the ground-up.
Food and drink have always been essential tools for protest, revolution, and movement building. Since colonization and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Indigenous, Black and Migrant foodways have utilized strategies like hunger strikes, mutual aid, reparation bills, etc. to directly resist oppressive systems, demand shifts in policy, and build alternative institutions rooted in reclamation. Although at times it may feel that the corporatized systems of food and beverage today are inevitable and unchanging, we hold firm that the possibility and opportunity for systems transformation is possible, and in front of us.
“The challenges before us are monumental. We are not obligated to complete the task of repair but we are required to act at the intersection of our capability and what the world needs. To maintain silence is to cast our vote for the status quo, to passively endorse a racist and exploitative food system, and to deny ourselves agency over the destiny of our community.”
- Leah Penniman
This curriculum will address the systemic injustices within the broader food system, and empower continued work towards equitable solutions. It will prioritize equipping those working across the food system with a deep and holistic understanding of the systems that directly impact their lives. Our goals for this initiative are three-fold:
Actively increase knowledge and deeper understanding of the historical context and evolution of the structures of the U.S. food system.
Document, highlight, and amplify the existing practices of centered individuals and communities as both experts and learners, emphasizing the use of non-traditional education.
Decentralize traditional systems of education and power, and increase commitment to the development of structures that center food sovereignty.
In 2007, the first global forum on food sovereignty defined it as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
Similarly, we aim to design a curriculum with content that centers the lived experience and points-of-view of those who have historically been exploited and overlooked when food systems are covered and discussed. This also applies to how the curriculum will be designed: given that many folks within food, beverage, and hospitality do not work in front of a computer, this curriculum will be offered in both English and Spanish, and offer both desktop and mobile versions. No former academic knowledge of food systems is required to participate. Once complete, the curriculum will be made available for purchase on a sliding scale, with free or subsidized access for those holding marginalized identities.
Food Systems Primer (2022)
An introduction to food systems and its history, foundational vocabulary, followed by an overview of each of the six core topics (see below).
Live Cohort Learning (2023)
Small groups that gather weekly over the course of 3 months to learn each module of the Food Systems 101 together, led by a Studio ATAO facilitator.
Six Core Modules (2023)
A deep-dive into each of the six core topics (see below), all led by specific subject matter experts.
This curriculum will also be made available to food and beverage and organizations as an internal resource, to normalize and standardize food systems education.
Community Organizing Partnerships
We aim to implement this curriculum in collaboration with organizations that are actively servicing the FBH industry, and utilize it as an opportunity to rally community members to activate politically.
The curriculum will be composed of 6+ modules, beginning with a required Food Systems Primer launching at the end of 2022. This Primer will cover an introduction to food systems and its history, foundational vocabulary, followed by an overview of each core topic. Each of the six topics will be explored as a cyclical loop, feeding into and building from one another, arriving at the state of food and beverage today.
Each of the themes explored in the Food Systems Primer will be further explained in its own separate module, launching throughout 2023. Throughout each module, there will be particular attention paid to how Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant contributions have shaped the U.S.
Each module will be visioned, designed and led by one or more subject matter experts. The modules will follow an arc of pre-recorded videos, readings, audio lessons, self-reflection prompts, and embedded quizzes. Learners can expect 4-6 hours of concentrated work per module.
A community Discord will be available for ongoing discussion, and live cohort learning will be offered 2-4 times yearly. Each module will be grounded in academic research, but content will intentionally be built in a way that is accessible to all learners.
Krishnendu Ray is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. He is the author of The Migrant’s Table (2004) and The Ethnic Restaurateur (2016) and the co-editor of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia (2012). He was formerly a faculty member and the Acting Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at The Culinary Institute of America and the President of The Association for the Study of Food and Society. He is an Editorial Collective Member of the Food Studies journal Gastronomica.
More advisors to be announced soon!
Support this Curriculum
We are seeking an initial $100,000 in total funding to begin the creation process of this curriculum. These dollars will be used to compensate our Project Lead, supporting team members, expert advisors, and cover administrative costs (e.g., our learning management system.)
Sponsorship tiers start at $10,000. You can find a more detailed breakdown of sponsorship tiers below.
For funding opportunities, please contact
Sarah Perlmeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Errol Schweizer has over 28 years of experience in the food industry, from grill cook and stock clerk to V.P. of Grocery at Whole Foods from 2009-2016. In that role, his team grew department sales to over U.S. $5B by supporting the launch and commercialization of thousands of local products and emerging brands. Supermarket News has recognized Errol with a Retail Game-changer award and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Hemp Industries Association. Errol is also a regular Forbes contributor and is host of The Checkout Podcast.