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Teaching the Politics of Food

October 9, 2012

What Can a Can of Coke Teach Us About Politics?

Food has become an increasingly popular topic. On college campuses across the country, a number of new courses are springing up teaching traditional subjects like history, sociology, and psychology through the lens of food. I myself regularly teach a course in “Food Politics.” And in courses where food is not the central theme, food can often be used as a lens through which to make sense of the world around us. The Farm Bill provides a powerful illustration of the power dynamics at the heart of the US Senate. Urban development patterns help us make sense of the obesity epidemic. And so on.

But perhaps my favorite example, which I regularly use in my introduction to international relations course, is to tell the story of globalization starting with a can of coke.

I start by placing a can of coke on the lectern at the front of the room. I then ask students to list all the ways that can of coke illustrates the challenges and dynamics of globalization. Students generally get a few pretty examples and then run out of examples pretty quickly. I then help them draw out many others. I run a similar exercise on the first day of my food politics class, asking students to identify all the ways in which a can of coke is “political”. These include:

  • Coke as a symbol of democracy and progress. As Eastern Europe transitioned from communism to democracy, coke became the symbol of that transition.
  • The flip side of that, coke is also often perceived as a symbol of Americanization. French nationalists, for example, often lament that McDonalds is replacing local cuisine and that coke is more widely available than coffee or French wines.
  • The Coca-Cola Corporation has developed a strong global marketing platform. Today, coke is available in nearly every country in the world. Indeed, as sales stagnate in the United States, Coca-Cola sought to liberalize trade barriers and expand into new markets.
  • In India, the arrival of Coca-Cola bottling plants in some areas has had unforeseen consequences for small farmers. The powerful pumps used to draw water from local reservoirs outcompetes hand pumps, leaving little water for local food production.
  • Coke, like most sodas and many other processed foods and drinks, includes gum Arabic as a stabilizer. Produced from the sap of the acacia tree, most gum Arabic is sourced from the African Sahel, including Sudan. When the global community proposed sanctions against Sudan in response to the Darfur crisis, the government of Sudan threatened to undermine cola production in the West by ending its export of gum Arabic.
  • The Economist in 2008 reported efforts to use Coke consumption as a proxy measure for stability and prosperity in Africa. It can also be used as a predictor of economic and civil instability.
  • Coke production is affected by broader global agricultural trends. Coke produced for consumption in the United States, for example, relies on high fructose corn syrup. Subsidies for corn production in the United States historically made corn cheaper than sugar. Elsewhere in the world, coke is made with sugar.
  • And we’ve not even touched on the can itself!

In a simple can of Coke, we thus see many of the central themes and debates in international relations today: democracy and resistance, globalization, water and resource conflicts, free trade, refugees and humanitarian crises, cultural imperialism, and identity politics.

Equally important for our students, though, that simple can of Coke allows them to see the ways in which their everyday lives are caught up in global politics. Out act of drinking a Coke links us through webs of production, consumption, and identity, to other people in countries around the world.

Do you have other suggestions for using food to teach? If so, please considering sharing them.

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  1. Selling Coke in Myanmar | Global Food Politics

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