Different ideas to the table

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Touching on the hidden meaning of shared meals and the benefits of blubber, 

the causes of childhood obesity and the rise of American agribusinesses, University of North Carolina Wilmington faculty members from across disciplines will provide a whirlwind tour of the history, sociology and science of an interest shared by every living organism on the planet: food.

For each of the four years the university has hosted a faculty research symposium, speakers have centered on a topic broad enough to draw interest while reflecting the diverse work of faculty members in departments ranging from biochemistry to music in the College of Arts and Sciences, said event organizer and associate dean Dr. Kathleen Berkeley. Berkeley said she hopes exposure to new approaches on such a familiar and potentially unexamined topic will rekindle an interest in learning for community members.

“Food is something that touches all of us, and we thought that would be a great way to get the community to come to campus,” Berkeley said. “Anybody who is curious about the world, who is interested in learning something new, who is open to different ideas that they never have thought about before — that’s our crowd.”

One of seven presenters slated for the symposium, Dr. Nicholas Hudson, assistant professor of art history, will explore the connection between shared meals and social dynamics. Early in the Roman Empire, Hudson said Romans from all social classes dined together to affirm a relationship between patron and client, with each guest eating from his or her own plate. A divide between the classes formed as the wealthy grew wealthier, around the 4th century, Hudson said. The wealthiest people stopped sharing meals with the rest of society, maintaining the same dining routines, while the middle and lower classes found new ways to create a sense of community, including at meal times.

“Instead of everybody having their own food that they guard, on their own plates, they start sharing food at the table. You start to see these big plates and bowls. People are dipping their hands into these bowls and sharing. By doing that, they’re breaking down social barriers. They’re giving up their personal identity to create a larger group identity,” Hudson said.

Hudson’s argument that the spaces people claim while sharing meals reflects a larger social dynamic is not limited to Romans living centuries ago. Most Americans have likely witnessed a recent shift in the formal structure of sharing meals, he suggested, evident in the move from sitting at the dining room table to entertaining in the kitchen.

“In the United States, we’ve made our social events that involve food less and less formal, and this is a similar phenomenon to what we saw in late antiquity,” Hudson said.

Like Hudson, Dr. Beverley Foulks McGuire, assistant professor of philosophy and religion, will present a perspective that places more importance on how one eats instead of what one eats, as outlined in the practice of mindful eating long-employed by Chinese Buddhists.

“Essentially, mindful eating places an emphasis on slowly and deliberately eating in moderation, and ideally, in silence,” McGuire said. “They emphasize that it is just as important as the consideration of what one eats.” The idea is gaining ground in America, McGuire said, as a way to curb portions and develop a taste for more healthy foods.

Shifting focus to the food itself, Dr. Heather Koopman, professor of biology and marine biology, will challenge the commonly held belief that fat is bad by providing examples of how marine mammals rely on hefty fat reserves to survive.

“All we hear is that fat is bad for you, fat is bad for you, fat is bad for you. But in fact, it’s not bad for you. Eating too much of it is, and certain types of it are,” Koopman said.

Koopman’s work focuses more on how marine mammals use, instead of consume, fat, she said, like studying the fatty reserves in the foreheads and jaws of whales and dolphins used to communicate and find prey. But she also plans to explain how penguins and female harp and hooded seals rely on enormous stores of fat to sustain them while they fast for weeks or months at a time and devote all energy to caring for offspring on land.

Dr. Jill Waity, assistant professor of sociology, will discuss a local issue: food insecurity and access to food assistance in southeastern North Carolina. Hunger is an issue close to home, Waity said. North Carolina has the fifth highest level of food insecurity in the country, with 17.3 percent of people lacking access to enough food at all times for all members of a household.

“I don’t think people necessarily think that hunger is an issue in the United States. They think that less developed countries have higher rates of hunger, but it’s actually a big problem here,” Waity said.

The Food for Thought faculty research symposium will begin at 7 p.m. in Morton Hall, room 100, on Feb. 17. Each of the seven presenters will discuss their research for 10 minutes before a discussion among presenters and audience members commences. Desserts prepared by Feast Down East will be available following the symposium.

The event is free and open to the public. Parking will be available in Lot E.

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