Food@MSU uses conversation to cultivate better understanding of food

MSU AgBioResearch initiative encourages open communication between academia and the public

Food — it’s a way to gather, it’s a way to start conversation and it’s something that impacts everyone.

Food@MSU, an initiative of Michigan State University AgBioResearch, knows that food connects our society. Michigan State is leading the effort to sort through information and misinformation about food, by fostering dialogue between scientists and the public. 

“Too often, academia is looking to show their faculty, tell people what to do, and leave, but that doesn’t work,” Sheril Kirshenbaum, host of Food@MSU’s  Our Table conversations, said in an interview with WKAR’s Russ White. “We have to do a lot more listening.”

The Our Table conversations that Kirshenbaum moderates are the cornerstone of this effort to listen intently to public concerns. Community members, food and health professionals, farmers, MSU faculty, staff and students, and others are invited to the free discussions. Each focuses on a specific food topic and lasts approximately 90 minutes. There’s panel discussion followed by time for audience members to join the conversation.

“More time is spend giving people in the room space to ask questions to our panelists and talk amongst each other,” said Kirshenbaum. “Everyone leaves a little more informed to draw what they can from the event.”

According to the American Farm Bureau, only 2 percent of American families live on farms or ranches. With more Americans moving to cities and suburbs, it’s important to cultivate understanding of where our food comes from, and how it affects our health and the environment, said Kirshenbaum.

“There’s this disconnect between the food that we eat and produce, the food that sustains us, and the acknowledgement of where it comes from and how it’s going to influence the way we live — as individuals, and as communities,” she said.

The latest wave of the Michigan State University Food Literacy and Engagement Poll revealed that 51 percent of Americans rarely (never or less than once a month) seek information about where their food was grown and how it was produced.

“Less than half of Americans are thinking about where their food comes from and how it impacts their health,” Kirshenbaum said. “Yet, food shapes the way we live, both on a personal basis — in terms of staying healthy, in terms of making food choices for our families and communities — and also globally, when you’re thinking about sustainability.”

The MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll measures consumer knowledge and attitudes toward a variety of food topics. It provides baseline understanding of how to tailor programming and research to meet public needs, and ultimately, how these issues, such as food waste and food access, affect us and what we can do to make a difference.

“We have a lot of high-level conversations on things like how to address issues like climate change, when there are steps we could take with the ways that we produce, use, and waste food that can have a huge impact on the amount of carbon we emit, energy we use, water we use, and is part of a much more important conversation about the choices we’re making globally that will really set the course for decades to come,” said Kirshenbaum.

Kirshenbaum sees a bright future for Food@MSU.

“I really am encouraged by the recognition that we in academia are taking time to listen to the concerns of our communities, and maybe think a little bit more constructively about how to fill those gaps, or how to meet the needs and concerns of the people there who just want to know more information,” she said.

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