Anthropology, Food, and Sustainability: Growing a Sense of Place on Campus

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  • posted byLaura Gonzalez
  • dateOctober 16, 2013
  • comments5
Miramar College Garden 2

Look out across the grassy circle that serves as San Diego Miramar College’s campus center, and you won’t see very many students. Should you happen to sneak out of the office just after classes have let out, you may see a small mass of humanity moving towards the buildings or towards the parking lot, but you’d never imagine the campus serves 14,000 students. Like many community colleges, ours is a commuter campus. Students drive to school, attend class, and more likely than not, hurry off to work, to pick up children from school, or to a class at another local college.

As a professor of cultural anthropology, I’m interested in communities. As a sustainability leader on campus, I’m interested in my campus community in particular. I was fortunate to be selected to participate in an AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) Sustainability Workshop several years ago to explore the link between place, community building, and sustainability education.

The Sustainability Across the Curriculum Leadership Workshop teaches campus environmental leaders to engage students, faculty, and staff in learning about campus and regional ecology. Co-leaders Peggy Barlett (an anthropologist from Emory University) and Geoffrey Chase (a Dean at San Diego State University) stress that connection to place results from a deepening understanding of a location’s attributes and uniqueness. This, in turn, leads to a developing sense of stewardship. As a result of my participation in the workshop, I became more interested in how people’s sense of place connects them to their campus environment and campus community.

Barlett’s edited volume, Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World (2005) emphasizes how faculty and residents become invested in their communities through projects connecting them to their natural environment, such as in the successful Piedmont Project at Emory. Designed by Barlett and faculty colleagues, the Piedmont Project is a professional development activity that engages faculty intellectually, emotionally, and actively by connecting them to the local Piedmont forest ecosystem. Participants read, discuss, hear speakers, and walk in the woods, leaving after several days with a renewed sense of focus on place and the drive to pass that along to their students in coursework and curriculum.

San Diego Miramar College lies in the heart of Mira Mesa, an urban neighborhood of San Diego. We do not have a local forest to hike through, or a stream to sit quietly by. What we did have, however, was quite a bit of campus land that could support a modest garden. In early 2009, I became the Faculty Sustainability Coordinator at my college, as well as Chair of the Environmental Stewardship Committee. We formed a group of faculty, staff, and students to turn an unused spot near the cafeteria into a raised-bed organic vegetable garden. With the support of our college president and foundation, we secured funding. With the aid and expertise of the landscaping staff, we built six raised beds in 2010 and a seventh that was ADA compliant in 2011.

Hoping to involve as many people as possible, we set the site up as a community garden, with campus groups applying to care for a raised bed each season. The cafeteria staff cared for a bed, as did the Reprographics office. Several groups were actually classes, such as Nutrition or Biology, which used the garden not only to raise students’ awareness of the connection between the garden and their diet, but also to grow specimen plants that could be examined under a microscope. Students, staff, and faculty who had never met found themselves working side-by-side, sharing gardening tips, stories, and produce.

One of the raised beds was designated for the Anthropology Department. In my Cultural and Physical courses, I modified the Honors requirements to emphasize extra readings on food and culture, along with required work in the garden. The Honors theme became the epicure Brillat-Savarin’s adage, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” (Based on this quote, I’ve always thought Brillat-Savarin was really an anthropologist, for what could capture the relationship between food and humans more accurately?)

At the site, students planned out the garden, taking into consideration the requirements of the region and season. They prepared the soil, planted, cared for the growing plants and the health of the beds, turned compost, harvested, and enjoyed garden produce with semi-impromptu “salad parties.” For their extra coursework, I assigned a variety of short readings speaking to the fundamental importance of food to the organization of social life and sense of personal identity, as well as to human diets, agriculture, and the sustainability of the food system.

Students reported back at the end of each semester how working in the garden had connected them to the campus in a way that they hadn’t been before. They looked forward to coming to school to see what was growing, and tasted things they had never eaten. We discussed the readings while weeding rows together. We shared stories about comfort foods and grandparents’ gardens. Some of them planted vegetables at home; some started composting. Two students fell in love.

Setha Low and Irwin Altman (1992) write that attachment to place has three basic components: cognitive (knowledge), affective (emotion), and practice (behavior). Working in the campus organic garden encouraged my students to learn, share, and experience a more immersive connection to food and culture that emphasized their particular campus environment and region. Not all students will find love in the garden, but they may love their campus and local environment a bit more.

Many projects can connect students to their campus, grounding them in a sense of place. These projects may also support a sense of stewardship and possibly transform their experience of college. Projects might include student surveys, life histories, and campus ethnography. It might include garbology projects such as the one led by my colleague Bob Muckle at Capilano University in Vancouver, B.C. In the garbology project, archaeology students sort and analyze garbage to become better informed about the campus waste stream and recycling habits. Campus connections can be made in all types of anthropology classes. I would love to know what kinds of projects you have developed to connect your students to their campuses!

Laura Tubelle de González is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair of Environmental Stewardship at San Diego Miramar College in Southern California. She has taught cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and the Cultures of Mexico courses for 15 years. She specializes in Cultural Anthropology, having done ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico and India. Her current research interest is in food studies with a focus on sustainable food systems. She is also a past-president of the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, a section of the American Anthropological Association that focuses on teaching anthropology. Currently she administrates their Facebook page and Twitter feed (@SACC-L).


Altman, I., & Low, S. (Eds.) (1992) Place Attachment, in Human Behavior and Environment, Vol 12. New York, N.E.: Springer.

Barlett, P. (Ed.) (2005) Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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  1. Serena Uberti says:

    Hi Laura. I am trying to get in touch with you, as I have been one of your students at ICAE in La Jolla, some 25 years ago. I just stumbled upon your recommendation letter and it has deeply touched me. I have rarely heard words as encouraging as yours from any teacher, possibly never. I have always had a hard time as a student, mostly because of personal issues. To read your unleashed praise of me and my work has stunned me. I am at a turning point in my life and finding this very old letter that has never gotten lost in my messy life is particularly important. So I need to say thank you. I remember you and your fun lessons very clearly. I hope my words and gratitude will somehow reach you.

  2. Laura Gonzalez says:

    Thanks for your comment, Chris. The Urban Farm is such a great teaching environment. I can imagine lots of possibilities there and in the other sites you mention. Best of luck!

  3. Chris says:

    I teach at SDCity College and have been mulling over the idea of adding in a component to my Cultural classes along the lines of your ideas for the Honors students. I think SD is an ideal place for this. While my students wouldn’t necessarily plan and grow a garden, they could work at Seeds@City (our urban farm) and perhaps we could do a project interviewing folks who garden at Roots in City Heights or who sell crops or purchase food at SD Public Market or other farmers markets in town. Now that I’ve read your post, I am even more inspired to see what I can accomplish for my students and help connect them not only to the campus but to the community.

  4. Tad McIlwraith says:

    Laura …

    This is a lovely piece. The reflections on your projects and how it promotes a sense of place and, in turn, a sense of community should motivate readers to action! I’m already thinking about what I could do around my institution.

    I don’t spend much time growing plants in gardens, but I am attracted to literature on the idea of place. I am particularly interested in how attachment to places is formed. Your post discusses this process at Miramar clearly. In what what ways are the attachments your students form through the gardens sustaining? Do they endure after the life of the course? Perhaps they take on a new life, in a new garden, away from Miramar?

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.


    • Laura González says:

      Thanks Tad, I appreciate your positive feedback! But really, this is what we professors do who can’t seem to get it together to develop and run an amazing field school like you do. Field school changes lives!

      I’ve had a number of students say that they have planted gardens in their homes or apartments. When they can’t plant gardens, they’ve planted small vegetables or herbs in pots. Others tell me that they found ways to connect to their parents, grandparents, or other relatives who farmed through this work. Some say that the garden work, along with the readings (Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, anthropological research on diet and foodways), have changed the way they source or purchase their food. If I can help them think critically about how they engage with the food system on any level, I take it as a success. I hope (and believe) these connections stay with them after they’ve moved on from Miramar.

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