For Suzanne Cope, Ph.D. and visiting assistant professor in the college’s English department, food means a lot more than just breakfast, lunch and dinner. For Cope, food is at the center of her academic study and her life. She recently published her book “Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, and Alcoholic Spirits.”
“I guess I was just interested in food,” she said. “I just happened to be writing personal essays that had to do with food and my own experience with food. Particularly how food was relating to my past and my life.”
Cope, who has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Lesley College, teaches various English classes at Manhattan College, including a class on the short story. Heidi Spetz, a junior, took Cope’s short story class. “It was one of my favorite classes,” Spetz said. “She made me appreciate how to analyze short stories. Then I could take those skills and techniques and write my own, which was really cool.”
Bridging the gap between her personal reflection on food and food studies started with getting her Ph.D. “I went for my Ph.D in writing studies and when I got done with that I wanted to take a break from looking at writing studies,” Cope said. “I discovered—kind of by accident—this world of food studies.”
By adding a research component to the writing she was already doing on food, Cope was able to broaden experiences with food to everyone and not just herself.
Of course, it was her personal experiences with food that set her down the path of food studies in the first place. “My grandmother died while I was in high school and I didn’t really learn to cook Italian from her. I didn’t really learn to cook in high school,” Cope said. It was in college that she began to think more about how she related to food.
“Looking back at my own college life, that was the first time I was away from home and had to cook for myself. It also connected me to people in different ways,” Cope said. “I remember seeing some differences in what I thought was important about food. It kind of highlighted some things that were different between me and my roommate, where she would buy frozen pot pie and laugh at me for making things from scratch.”
In college, Cope noticed that her decisions surrounding food went further than just what to eat.
“I was developing my own value systems not only around what I wanted to eat, but about how I wanted to source food,” she said.
For Manhattan College students, Cope thinks this time is when college students begin to think about food more. “It’s one of the few things where we make decisions three or more times a day about what we want to eat. Where it comes from, who prepares it, how much these people get paid, how it treats the earth. It brings us together,” Cope said.
Of course, with so much going on in a college student’s life, these concerns can often be pushed to the background by the convenience of campus dining.
“I’ve heard so many complaints from students, and I think students want choices,” Cope said. In her business writing class, she asks students to investigate and argue for change in some aspect of the campus in a writing assignment. Cope said these papers often have to do with the dining options on campus.
“A lot of students say they want more dining hall options. They want things that are healthier. So students are aware of what’s healthy, they just don’t have the option of eating things that are healthier. I think it’s a very easy jump to say: ‘what’s healthy for me, then what’s healthy for the environment, and what’s healthy for workers’.”
This concern for the environment and workers is part of understanding every aspect of food culture. “It really effects all aspects of our culture. People more and more, especially college students are starting to realize that,” Cope said. “It has a lot to do with social justice and environmental issues.”
One MC’s Catholic Relief Services student ambassadors’ focus groups is Fair Trade, a social movement focused on achieving better conditions for marginalized workers.
“Manhattan College is the first Fair Trade college in New York City,” Kayli McTague, a junior and president of CRS student ambassadors, said.
“We sell fair trade coffee, chocolate and olive oil in Cornerstone. We brew fair trade coffee at Starbucks, and we have different fair trade foods in Locke’s.
October is international Fair Trade month. “All of the bananas this month are fair trade,” McTague said. “Being a conscious consumer may not mean a whole lot to [someone], but for someone else it can make a world of difference.”
Cope noted the college’s status as the first fair trade campus when she first interviewed at MC.
“I love that,” she said. “I think that’s so great.”
“It provides such an easy jump and is a justification for providing more options,” Cope said of the Fair Trade presence on campus. “You can’t give three fourths of it. You can’t say here are all the big issues we need to think about or here is why industrial farming can be bad, but you’re not allowed to think about it when it comes to the dining hall.”
Cope thinks students need more choice and more information. Food studies and environmental studies courses on campus ask students to think about their food critically.
“If students come out of [these classes] asking the tough questions that the courses ask them to ask, then they should get an answer for that. We are asking them to inquire, to think critically. We should also provide answers.”