Interviewing Baltimore Older Adults About Food System Change: Oral History as a Teaching Tool

Roni A. Neff, Linnea I. Laestadius, Susan DiMauro, Anne M. Palmer


Urban food systems have changed considerably over the past half century. Older adults’ descriptions of place-based, personal food system history can help inform student learning and may contribute to expert understanding of food system change. Structural and social shifts in food purchasing and consumption contribute to diet-related disease and loss of historical food cultures in cities. Modern efforts to improve food systems are rarely informed by history, despite the potential benefits. Students performed oral history interviews with Baltimore older adults. Transcripts were analyzed using an inductive grounded theory approach. Interviewees described a shift from food they perceived as natural and healthy to food seen as lacking freshness, with additives and poor flavor. Many mistrusted the food industry including retailers. Some emphasized benefits of modern changes such as reduced preparation time. Despite low incomes, interviewee concerns went well beyond food prices. We describe and reflect on insights from the oral histories, while presenting a case study of the use of oral history in graduate education. To our knowledge, this is the first paper describing oral history with older adults focused on the food system.


History, Food culture, Qualitative interviews, Student project

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