Let's talk food: Inspiring meaningful conversations is crux of new MSU initiative

Share This Article
A group of friends eat a meal around a rustic table

“Communication is not something you add on to science, it is the essence of science.”
– Alan Alda, actor and founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

Food is the centerpiece of a new Michigan State University (MSU) public awareness campaign led by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

A major goal of Food @ MSU is to provide knowledge so that consumers can make better informed decisions about their food and their health, said Ronald Hendrick, dean of the CANR. The campaign is rooted in communication.

“As the value of science continues to be questioned in many political circles, we realize the need for MSU and other institutes of higher education to be more engaged with the public about how their research and work impacts important issues like food security, food safety and hunger,” Hendrick said.

A key component of the campaign will be a series of community roundtable discussions centered on specific food topics. Scientists, farmers, consumers, policymakers and others will be invited. They will join host and moderator Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-author of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”

“With today’s technology and 24-7 news cycle, we’re constantly faced with conflicting messages about our food and health,” Kirshenbaum said. “As a mom of two young boys, I share the challenges of deciding what to put on the dinner table each evening. I looking forward to hearing what concerns are top-of-mind and helping to lend advice in these important areas.”

The conversations will be filmed and shared online, possibly even aired on television.

Part of the initiative will also include national polling to help get a better understanding of people’s scientific understanding of food and where they’re getting information. In doing research on the project, Kirshenbaum said she was surprised at how difficult it was to find.

“Just bring up GMOs and you realize there’s a lot of confusion and inconsistent information out there. It’s an example of a topic where both the public and policy lag far behind the science,” she said.

Hendrick said he hopes the campaign will inspire families to put down their technology, especially around the dinner table, and to talk with one another.

“This isn’t about academics speaking scientific jargon, it’s about engaging in meaningful dialogue and providing practical, viable answers that are easy to comprehend,” Hendrick said.  

Launched this spring, the initiative also includes a new website and a Facebook presence. Both communication vehicles will spotlight stories and a question–and-answer blog, “Food for Thought.”

The initiative comes at a time when six out of nine consumers cite that their life issues of most concern are related to the food system, according to research conducted in 2016 by the Center for Food Integrity. That same research also revealed that 80 percent want to know more about where their food is produced but lack any direct connection to agriculture. More and more consumers are also crowdsourcing information – that is, accessing information from many sources, particularly non-expert websites and/or social media outlets.

“MSU knows food,” Hendrick said. “It harkens back to why the university was founded, and where we are headed in the future.”