NYU Steinhardt News

Student Spotlight: Erika Inwald and Global Food Cultures in Mexico

This January Carolyn Dimitri , Associate Professor in the Steinhardt Department of Nutrition and Food Studies took a group of students to Mexico to examine the implications of the forces of globalization on contemporary diet and culture in the country for the class Mexico: Global Food Cultures

The course explored the food system of the culturally and historically rich culinary landscape of the county– and in particular the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca, considered the birthplace of modern Mexican cuisine. Students were fully immersed in traditional and contemporary Mexican food culture through a variety of aspects including classroom instruction, guest lectures, and a wide variety of field visits to markets, local farms, restaurants, and food manufacturers.

We spoke with student on the trip Erika Inwald about her experience on the trip, what brought her to the Food Studies program at NYU Steinhardt, and her reflections on the experience.

Where are you from, what is your undergraduate degree in, and what made you interested in studying Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt?

I’m from Brooklyn, New York and I received my undergraduate degree in environmental studies from Brown University. I decided to pursue a degree in food studies in order to better understand the political and economic factors that lead to inequity in food production, trade, and consumption. The hope is that with this knowledge I will be better equipped to tackle the inequities that exist in our food and agriculture system, as well as our society more broadly.

What is your concentration in the program, and what made you want to take the global class?

In my program, I study agricultural policy, injustice in the food system, and the intersection between food and labor. I decided to take the Global Food Cultures: Mexico so that I could experience firsthand some of the effects of national agriculture and trade policy. In a political moment mired in nationalism, I wanted to learn how Mexican and American agricultural policies intersected on the ground. The ability to practice my Spanish and eat delicious spicy food was also of course an additional attraction.

What were some of your favorite aspects of the class?

One of the benefits of taking a course such as Global Food Cultures: Mexico is having access to experiential learning that would be almost impossible otherwise. During our trip we were able to see a meat processing plant, a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), a coffee farm, and attend a lecture on the economics of the coffee market with the leader of a coffee cooperative. Although it is possible that I could have taken a trip to Mexico on my own, I would never have been able to have learning experiences such as these ones. The artisanal Mezcal wasn’t too bad either!

How did the class open your eyes to food inequality that you wouldn't have seen in a classroom?

One part of the class that I think I’ll always remember is our trip to the coffee farm in Oaxaca. It took us four hours of endlessly winding roads to arrive at this remote location on the side of a mountain. Everyday I wake up and drink a cup of coffee, but was completely ignorant to the intensive process that it takes to harvest and produce the coffee that goes into my instant coffee pot. To harvest the coffee, the workers spend hours balancing on the edge of a mountain in a dense, jungle-like forest. While we in the United States have access to $2 cups of coffee (depending on your location), coffee workers on the farm earn only about 80 pesos (about $4) a day harvesting coffee. The stark contrast of how easy it is to consume a cup of coffee with the difficulty of harvesting epitomized the inequality that is so pervasive in our food system.

How do you think this class will give you new perspectives as you move through the remainder of the program?

This class didn’t give me a new perspective per se—although I learned a great deal about Mexican culinary traditions that I was unaware of before the trip—but instead, it helped to reinforce my decision to study and work toward a more equitable food and agriculture system. This trip helped to reinvigorate my desire to dedicate my studies and work to dismantle the injustices and inequities present in our system of production, trade, and consumption of food. 

Visit Steinhardt Global Affairs for more information about this course and other global experiences available to NYU students.