While searching for a first-year seminar, Margaret Moore, '14, says one title caught her attention — Deciphering a Meal: Analyzing our Global Food System. "I love food," she says. "I decided it was the class for me."

Fifteen other students joined Moore in the seminar, the brainchild of Dr. Elizabeth Ransom, assistant professor of sociology. Throughout the semester, they have been exploring issues with the global food system, including the role of technology, the future of food production, and humanitarian crises such as widespread hunger.

Ransom uses an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on work by anthropologists, economists, journalists, historians, nutritionists and sociologists.

For Moore, who intends to major in the sciences, there are even connections between the course material and what she’s learning in science classes. "Though the course has a sociological base, it incorporates chemistry and biology," she says.

Classmate George Werner, '14, says he came into the class expecting a focus just on health and nutrition; instead, he's learning "about tracing food to our plates, and what is behind each meal." Like Moore, Werner loves food. "It is imperative to be open to new foods, as well as to know where the food actually comes from," he says.

Tracing the origin of foods is just one of the challenges of a globalized food system. "On a daily basis, most people in the U.S. consume food products that do not come from the U.S. — they're coming from other parts of the world," says Ransom. "That raises questions about the environment, food security, and the well-being of farm communities throughout the world — do you understand where your food is coming from?"

To answer this question, Ransom's syllabus covers everything from food aid in developing countries and inequalities in global trade to community food movements and food production in the U.S. It also draws from popular culture with the film "Food, Inc." and Michael Pollan's bestseller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

A class trip to a 2,700-acre conventional farm in nearby Dinwiddie, Va., gave students a chance to see farming technologies and processes in action. The farm grows corn, cotton, and soybeans — the major commodity crops subsidized in the U.S. — as well as some cattle. "I wanted them to see the business of farming," she says. "They really got a perspective on what I call 'big agriculture.'"

"I saw tobacco curing for the first time. It smells sweet, nothing like a cigarette," says Moore, whose family grows their own food on a smaller scale in Nelson County, Va. "We talked about the massive technological innovations of the last century; I had no idea a single tractor could cost $100,000 or more."

Though Ransom's students are heading off in different academic directions, they plan to build on what they've learned in their first semester at Richmond.

"This course inspired me to incorporate food into my major or future career," says Moore, who would like to explore career options as an agricultural biologist or chemist.

For Werner, the lesson of transparency is critical. "Large corporations market to people and make them believe they're getting better things than they are," he says. Through his intended major in business administration with a concentration in marketing, he hopes to learn how to be an effective marketer who can promote a product based on its real benefits.

"One might think we would all walk away vegetarians or only eating organic, but that wasn't the point at all," says Alisha Cerel, '14, a future pediatrician. "The class encouraged us to think analytically about our role in the food system, the government's role, industry's role, and the farmer's role. Making informed choices means having the knowledge to make purchases that you can feel good about."