Serving up Praxis: Reflecting on Off the Table at UCLA

“All right, let’s start cooking.” Our metal stools scraped back all at once and we began forming small groups.  “We need 3-4 people at each ricotta station, and some more at the vegetable station!”

Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food, was trying to direct us above all the clatter. Over 30 participants had come together that Thursday night in the industrial workspace at LA Kitchen for a panel about food-focused social enterprises in Los Angeles. Kleiman moderated discussion between Anar Joshi from Everytable, Kaitlin Mogentale from Pulp Pantry, Nick Panepinto from LA Kitchen, and Karla T. Vasquez from SalviSoul. The cooking class afterword was a bonus.

Over the past ten weeks UCLA’s Graduate Food Studies Certificate program has worked with several UCLA departments and initiatives (including the Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Healthy Campus Initiative, the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, the Center for the Study of Women, the Chicano Studies Research Center, the Department of Gender Studies, and off campus groups LA Kitchen and the Hammer Museum), to collectively produce Off the Table, a series of events that brought together advocates, policy-makers, business people, and students to think about food in complex ways. Each event built on another. It began with a troupe of Luskin students volunteering at Wattles Farm Community Garden in Hollywood, where participants got their hands dirty helping out with daily chores. Community gardens were the subject again when the Student Veterans Resource Center hosted a panel discussing the benefits of farming and gardening for veterans. A screening of the biopic Dolores followed by a talk from Dolores Huerta’s daughter, Maria Elena Chavez, from the  Dolores Huerta Foundation, built upon ideas of advocacy and the importance of community partnerships in a panel discussion entitled Harvesting ChangeA classroom lecture by Meyer Luskin about his own food waste recycling business set the tone for the conversations around socially responsible food enterprises at our last panel and cooking class at LA Kitchen.

Food is a complicated beast. From the science of agriculture to the artistry of cooking and the many cultural meanings we put on food itself, there is no doubt that how we grow, distribute, access, and throw away our food will pose significant challenges in rapidly changing political and ecological climates. Off the Table demonstrated how UCLA plans to meet this challenge. Practitioners, thinkers, and advocates from diverse disciplines must come together to share knowledge and collaborate on solutions. That’s why the Graduate Food Studies Certificate is offered to all graduate students on campus. Students from disciplines as disparate as anthropology, history, public health, and urban planning learn to communicate with each other about food. They then take those skills with them into the world, where they can successfully work together.

The event at LA Kitchen was just a small sampling of that ethos. Hardly anywhere else could there be such a quick turnaround between theory and practice. One moment we were discussing triple bottom lines and the next we were three-deep around a saucepan watching milk slowly transform into ricotta. While we were cooking, we had a chance to keep sharing our thoughts about the panel in between admiring each other’s knife skills. The entire event was an incredibly nuanced way of learning about a complex issue. We left that night knowing each other a little better, with new knowledge about food-focused enterprises in LA, with food. Lots and lots of food.

Jessa Orluk is the Project Assistant for the Graduate Food Studies Certificate Program and a student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program.

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