Cover of A Decent Meal by Michael Carolan
A Decent Meal
Building Empathy in a Divided America
Michael Carolan

IMPRINT: Redwood Press


240 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503613287
Ebook ISBN: 9781503629547

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Gold Medal in the 2022 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) - Current Events II (Social Issues/Humanitarian) Category.

Winner of the 2022 getAbstract International Book Award in the Business Impact Category, sponsored by the getAbstract.

A poignant look at empathetic encounters between staunch ideological rivals, all centered around our common need for food.

While America's new reality appears to be a deeply divided body politic, many are wondering how we can or should move forward from here. Can political or social divisiveness be healed? Is empathy among people with very little ideological common ground possible? In A Decent Meal, Michael Carolan finds answers to these fundamental questions in a series of unexpected places: around our dinner tables, along the aisles of our supermarkets, and in the fields growing our fruits and vegetables. What is more common, after all, than the simple fact that we all need to eat?

This book is the result of Carolan's career-long efforts to create simulations in which food could be used to build empathy, among even the staunchest of rivals. Though most people assume that presenting facts will sway the way the public behaves, time and again this assumption is proven wrong as we all selectively accept the facts that support our beliefs. Drawing on the data he has collected, Carolan argues that we must, instead, find places and practices where incivility—or worse, hate—is suspended and leverage those opportunities into tools for building social cohesion.

Each chapter follows the individuals who participated in a given experiment, ranging from strawberry-picking, attempting to subsist on SNAP benefits, or attending a dinner of wild game. By engaging with participants before, during, and after, Carolan is able to document their remarkable shifts in attitude and opinion. Though this book is framed around food, it is really about the spaces opened up by our need for food, in our communities, in our homes, and, ultimately, in our minds.

About the author

Michael Carolan is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Colorado State University. He is co-editor of the Journal of Rural Studies, Sustainability, and the British Food Journal. He is the author of the top-selling undergraduate textbooks in environmental studies and food studies and has also published numerous other books, includingThe Food Sharing Revolution(2018).

"Michael Carolan's collection of studies, experiences and stories in A Decent Meal is a reaction to the extreme social polarization in the U.S., which peaked with the storming of the Capitol. Knowledge of this disintegration, however, only appears in passing in his work – his main concern is how to stop the process. The sociologist does not think about big solutions, structural reforms or laws. For him, the focus is on the individual and the question of whether and how to get through to them. The book is a profoundly humanistic response to a tremendous humanistic crisis"

getAbstract Journal

"With interactions around food as his guiding framework, Michael Carolan seeks to answer questions keeping many Americans awake right now: Can we learn to see some of today's red-hot issues through a different lens? And in doing so, can we find common ground and maybe even some civility in these deeply divided times? An engaging and eminently readable book that may surprise with some of its observations, offering both insights and hope for our future conversations."

—Joyce E. McConnell, President, Colorado State University

"This is an important and timely book that balances the voices of the right and left in a conversation about community and civility. An absolute pleasure to read, it illuminates encounters in the heartland of America and the pursuit of a decent meal. Not sure what a decent meal looks like? Michael Carolan shows us, and in the process also shows us what it looks like for Americans to come together in common cause."

—Erik Schneiderhan, University of Toronto

"Empathy is in short supply in America at the very time we need it. Many of our political divisions reflect a lack of understanding of those different from ourselves. Carolan does an outstanding job giving voice to people in the heartland and helping us to understand their fears, anxieties, and motivations. His work helps us confront the challenges facing American society and ways to overcome those divisions."

—Darrell West, Brookings Institution

"As a scholar who is interested in misunderstandings and empathy deficits, Carolan's writing offers insights into the ways that stereotypes take diverse forms and how these patterns—rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding—fuel political polarization. The end goal is not necessarily to see everybody as identical but to have an empathetic understanding rooted in a respect for alterity rather than a knee-jerk disdain for essentialized difference."

—Josée Johnston, Social Forces