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Geography professor wins two fellowships, publishes book about food

Susanne Freidberg, associate professor of geography, was recently awarded both the Mellon New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. She has also just published her second book, Fresh: A Perishable History (Harvard University Press, 2009).

freidberg

Geography Professor Susanne Freidberg has received Mellon and Burkhardt Fellowships. Having examined the changing meaning of "fresh" food in her latest book, the fellowships will support her new research into climate change and the debate over where food should originate. (Photo by Marilyn Humphries)

Freidberg's new project focuses on the debates over where food should come from, in light of the growing concern about climate change. "I'm especially interested in the normative assumptions and politics that go into measuring food's carbon footprint,'" she says.

She will use the Mellon fellowship to take courses in ecology and related disciplines. During her Frederick Burkhardt fellowship, she will conduct research at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University.

Freidberg's book Fresh traces the changing meaning of freshness in food, particularly since the advent of refrigeration and improved transportation. VOX of Dartmouth spoke with Freidberg about the book.

freshWhat do you think "fresh" food means to American consumers?
I think the term "fresh" implies a lot of different things. People tend to assume that fresh food is natural, healthy, and pure, for example. They also tend to associate freshness with particular places, whether the fridge or the farmers' market. In the book I show how freshness, as a food quality, has become both more desirable and more questionable over time.

Having written this book, what is your take on "fresh"?
That it depends entirely on the context. The FDA relies on a negative definition: fresh foods are those that have not been frozen, heated, or chemically treated, with some exceptions. The book examines how much technology and labor goes into making our foods seem naturally fresh.

How did your students contribute to the research?
A number of students helped with the research, and some drew on their background and family ties. Adeline Yong '07, who is from Singapore, translated Chinese and helped me arrange fieldwork on the live fish trade in Hong Kong. Jenna Smith '09 comes from a dairy farming family, and she helped out with the chapter on milk. Laura MacGregor '09 connected me to her family members who work in the Pacific Northwest's salmon industry.

Can you identify any myths about the virtues of buying local?
Eating local is often portrayed as the answer to all our food problems—the way to improve our health, rebuild our communities, and save the planet. If only! But shopping at farmers' markets (which, for the record, I do whenever possible) won't by itself do anything about local or global inequalities in access to decent food.

How have the economics and politics of food production shaped our local landscape?
As soon as railroads began sending refrigerator cars into northern New England in the late 19th century, the region's farmers began to specialize in fresh milk for the Boston market. The result was the landscape of pastures and hay fields we know today—which has helped make tourism a bigger industry than dairy. Cows are valuable scenery in these parts.

What do you like best about living and eating in the Upper Valley?
I like taking my students to visit local farms. Mary and Pat McNamara [of McNamara Dairy in Plainfield, N.H.] give a great farm tour, complete with calves, chocolate milk, and commentary on how property taxes figure into the economics of local agriculture. Sunrise Farms in White River Junction, Vt., run by Chuck Wooster '89 and Norah Lake ’06, is another favorite. And then there's apple season—all those great varieties make the thought of impending winter a little easier to bear.

By LATARSHA GATLIN and SARAH MEMMI

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 4/23/09