Final Reflections on Puerto Rico

“Food carries so many meanings. A big theme for us was the connection between food and cultural identity. But there is also the political and economic role of food. I think it is really important that we have these things in mind when we design policies that are trying to change people’s behavior.”

“I wasn’t very interested in sustainability before. I think probably because I found an unfamiliar topic intimidating. So the trip to UPR Utuado was really new and interesting. It was surprising to see people our age who are learning to farm. And I didn’t know anything about hydroponics and aquaponics. Seeing this opened my mind to it in a way that reading about sustainability might not have. It made clear how solving problems requires a systems approach, and how food culture and gastronomy are connected to the way food is produced.”

These quotes are from a public health and a food studies student during the final meeting of the Global Food Cultures: Puerto Rico course that we held at NYU on April 10. Our students have had a month to reflect on their time in Puerto Rico, on our class discussions, and on the readings they were assigned. During this time, we also asked them to look back at the learning goals they defined before the trip and articulate the progress they made in their understanding of food systems and culture.

Like these quotes, the group discussion and the final reflection essays that students turned in demonstrate the advantages of experiential learning and interdisciplinary discussion. Drawn from the fields of public health, nutrition, and food studies, our students gained an appreciation for alternative perspectives by interacting with one another. By witnessing how Puerto Ricans are collaborating with one another to improve food security,  nutrition, and community development on the Island, our students learned how solutions to problems like these lay at the intersection of these different fields.

sam_1267Our trip officially ended almost a month ago, and it concluded with an open discussion about the week at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados del Caribe in Old San Juan. In small groups, students discussed the developments and challenges they observed in relation to different aspects of the food system: agricultural production, food processing and distribution, food policy and diet, and gastronomy and culture. Each group shared their thoughts with an expert on the topic and then led a group discussion about their learning from the week. We were joined by Soledad Gaztambide, from Para la Naturaleza, and Prof. Lidia Marte, from the University of Puerto Rico. As the discussion unfolded, students began to make connections across the different aspects of the food system that in the next weeks would help them move beyond their initial interest in the course and their disciplinary comfort zones.

We ended the week with a celebration of our time together and with one last dinner that showcased one of the many ethnic cuisine offerings in Puerto Rico: Peruvian cuisine.

After months of planning and imagining this course, we were pleased to see each piece as it fell into place. While students initially came with specific interests tied to their disciplines, the course broke these disciplinary boundaries, allowing them to see the connections between food studies, nutrition and public health, as well as the importance of a holistic approach, through a close look at the Puerto Rican food system and its historical, economic, political, and cultural underpinnings. By the end of the course, students identified the potential influence of gastronomy in food production and nutrition and the importance of identity and political status in understanding public health. For us, the professors, it was a learning experience as well, complementing our ongoing research in the island with the perspectives that came about from interactions between our students and our collaborators.

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Thanks for sharing the journey with us!

Gustavo Setrini, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Food Studies
Melissa Fuster, Ph.D., Assistant Professor & Faculty Fellow of Food Studies
Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health
Steinhardt School of Education, Culture, and Human Development
New York University

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