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


  • Roni A. Neff Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Linnea I. Laestadius University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Susan DiMauro
  • Anne M. Palmer Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health



History, Food culture, Qualitative interviews, Student project


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.

Author Biographies

Roni A. Neff, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Roni Neff is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She directs the Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program in the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. She co-created and continues to teach the Baltimore Food Systems course, and edited the textbook, Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, Equity. Wiley/Jossey-Bass: 2015. 

Linnea I. Laestadius, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Linnea Laestadius is an assistant professor of Public Health Policy and Administration at the Zilber School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is a former CLF-Lerner Fellow with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. 

Susan DiMauro

Susan DiMauro is a program associate with the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders. She is a former research assistant with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Anne M. Palmer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Anne Palmer directs the Food Communities and Public Health Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and is a Research Associate within the Department of Health, Behavior and Society in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She co-created and formerly co-taught the Baltimore Food Systems course.


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