Students study food trucks in the Sociology of Food

Walking in downtown Vancouver it sometimes feels like you can’t turn a corner without hitting an artisanal food truck. The City of Vancouver reported that, as of April 2013 we have over 100 street food vendors “providing nutritious and ethnically diverse food in our city.”

If it seems like all these food trucks sprang up overnight, it’s because they pretty much did. In 2008, the Vancouver City Council requested a report on how to increase food sold through street vendors; in 2010, the City managed a pilot project that awarded 17 food truck licenses through a lottery; by 2013, Vancouver was named as one of the top food truck cities in North America, just behind Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas.

UBC sociology professor Amy Hanser took note of this.

“Somehow, the City was willing to change their rules to introduce food, or to re-introduce street food. It had kind of been outlawed long ago,” she said. “Food has reached a kind of cultural stature now that makes it seem like a real contribution to urban life to allow these food trucks. It’s really about food and what we think food does.”

This sudden proliferation of food trucks is just one example of North America’s recent, intense interest in food -- a topic that Hanser will explore in a new course offered this winter on the sociology of food, SOCI 423. The course was offered once before as a special topic in sociology and it’s now back as an independent course listing, due in part to the enthusiastic response Hanser received from her students.

“The real reason that I thought I might offer this course is that I detected a real interest among young people in food,” she said. “In all these different ways I get the sense that people of your generation have a different, more politicized relationship to food than certainly was true for my generation.”

So what, exactly, is the sociology of food?

“I think of it as studying the different social aspects of food,” said Hanser. “So how it’s consumed, how it’s produced, its relationship to identities, to discourses about the body, and on and on and on.”

In the syllabus for Hanser’s previous special topics in sociology course, she describes food as “one of the most mundane and yet simultaneously most significant aspects of our society." The study of food can be done on a small scale, looking at interpersonal and gendered dynamics around meals, examples from Hanser's course including dieting habits and protein powder consumption. Alternatively, students and researchers can take a broad approach, studying larger topics such as industrial agriculture and the global food production chain.

Students interested in the class should also be prepared to think up some topics of their own. When Hanser taught the course previously, she had students bring in relevant “show and tell” items to share with the class -- a tradition she hopes to continue this year.

“This one student had a package of ‘healthy’ pasta […] and it had a 1-800 number on the back of it. And he called the company and was asking them all this health information,” she said.

“It was very funny, but also very telling about how empty the information on the package is. I hope to still have students bring their things, because often students take a class because they have a personal interest in it. I try to create space for people to do that.”