AUGUSTA — University of Maine at Augusta professor Lisa Botshon sees a lot of potential for discussing food in an academic setting.

For instance, in the women’s studies courses she’ll teach this year, Botshon and her students will talk about eating disorders, breastfeeding and the role of food in different cultures.

“Women have traditionally been the food producers in their families, putting the food on the table, actually feeding the family,” Botshon said. “All of these institutions have arisen to facilitate that process and profit from it, like supermarkets. There are tons of studies on gender on food, so my problem is really how to limit our discussions. We could do a whole semester on gender and food alone.”

Botshon is one of several professors whose courses will address food, UMA’s academic theme for the year, and its place in subjects such as chemistry, French, sociology, education and math.

“Food obviously is an important theme because first of all, it impacts everyone,” said Botshon, who chairs the faculty colloquium committee that chose the theme. “It has economic, political, environmental and gender components. It basically has relevance for just about any field of inquiry.”

The theme was formally launched at UMA’s convocation on Friday. Several events will follow, including a film series this fall, and undergraduate conference in the spring and conversations in individual classrooms.

More concretely, discussions around the theme could impact UMA’s activities the community or the food that’s available to students and faculty on campus.

The colloquium committee is recommending “Fast Food Nation,” investigative journalist Eric Schlosser’s book about the evolution of fast food. Much of the discussion that is emerging at UMA highlights problems with the American food industry related to the environment, worker safety, animal welfare, public health, local economies and public policy making.

Friday’s keynote speaker was Denis Thoet, who owns and operates Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner.

Thoet talked about the addictive properties of junk food and its role in causing chronic disease. He said people should seek out organic, locally grown food, whether they grow it themselves or buy it directly from farmers.

“The future of our own food is not in the hands of the industrial food giants or the lobby-driven government,” Thoet said. “It is with you and me.”

Also at convocation, associate professor of science Susan Baker spoke about evaluating health claims for specific foods, and professor of business and public administration Daylin Butler talked about the role of regulation in protecting workers, consumers and the environment.

UMA senior April Doughty, majoring in justice studies and American studies, explained how things she has learned at UMA have inspired her to work on food politics issues. Researching food purchases can be difficult, but it’s important, Doughty said.

“Make food political,” she told the audience. “Become an activist for your own health and the ones you love. Demand high-quality foods from your local food system to ensure you and your family and safe and healthy while you watch the community around you prosper.”

After the ceremony, students said they think food is an important topic to explore.

Chris Veilleux, a 28-year-old computer information systems student from Sidney, said he has just started to learn about food issues. UMA’s choice of the theme prompted him to watch the documentary “Food, Inc.,” and he hopes the university will work to shed light on problems in the American food system.

“It’s a great push for UMA to have this information,” Veilleux said. “I’d like to see more of an impact on the community as a whole by taking the information out into Augusta and other surrounding communities.”

Students said the Moose Tracks Cafe on campus offers healthy options, but there are fried foods and salty snacks, as well.

“You know the school could get some really hard feedback if they removed the unhealthy items,” said Angela Douglas, of Northport. “That’s what’s quick and easy for people.”

Douglas, a 30-year-old biology and medical lab technician student, said it’s a lot easier to eat a bag of chips in class than a salad.

Dining Services Coordinator Kevin Michaud said there is demand for fatty, salty and sweet foods, and preparing fresh, organic foods is expensive. As at other Univeristy of Maine System campuses, UMA’s food services are operated by Aramark.

Michaud said the cafe is trying to be proactive by doubling the size of its salad bar and using “green” cleaning products.

Much of the food for the post-convocation reception came from sources like Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, The Apple Farm in Fairfield and other local farms, Michaud said.

“Probably the most important thing is we want to work hard at sourcing as much product locally as we can,” he said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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