Sowing the Future of Food Systems

Contemporary food studies programs are increasingly addressing the multifaceted challenges of food and its politics, including social justice, food sovereignty, and environmental sustainability.

November 12, 2020


Food Politics in the Coronavirus Era. First Nations Health and the Traditional Role of Plants. The Fight for Food Justice: Mass Market or Consumer Culture. These are some of the classes offered by a growing number of academic food studies programs globally that are educating students on the multifaceted challenges of food and its politics.

As it becomes increasingly evident that food is a universal lens through which to explore issues of identity, equity, sovereignty and social justice, food studies programs have proliferated. Today, undergraduate majors, minors and certificate programs, master’s degrees, PhDs, or graduate certificates are all options for students at different points in their studies, and some programs are designed for working professionals.

Mary Stein, program leader for Montana State University’s Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program, explains the growing interest in food as a focus of study, as we are confronting “major planetary earth challenges like climate and the loss of natural resources as population grows, and this impacts the last bastions of wild ecosystems.” These high-stakes motivators, of which we are increasingly aware in society, are drawing students to this realm, she tells me. “[Students] feel the urgency, complexity and ubiquity of these challenges, and they see themselves as change agents on these issues.”

Marion Nestle, professor emerita at New York University, agrees. “We think of food studies as a lens through which to understand the most important social, political and economic problems in the world today.”

Or as Kristine Madsen, faculty director of the Berkeley Food Institute, phrases it succinctly: “Everybody eats. Every day.” She goes on to emphasize the relationship between eating and our modern way of life, saying, “every human condition issue we struggle with manifests in the food system and can be addressed through the food system.”

The first food studies programs in the United States began to be offered in the late 1980s and early 1990s and were built on a scholarly foundation of either gastronomy or dietetics and nutrition. For example, the program at Boston University Metropolitan College—one of the first—was created by culinary luminaries Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. Building on already-established programs such as the certificate in culinary arts, BU MET began to offer a master’s of liberal arts in gastronomy as a separate degree program.

In launching the program’s first course, Culture and Cuisine: Their Rapport in Civilization, Child and Pépin explicitly sought to position gastronomy as worthy of serious academic attention, a perspective that was hardly accepted at the time. Even today, several food studies faculty spoke of the challenges that still remain in gaining respect in academia for food as a subject of critical scholarly inquiry.

NYU’s program exemplifies the second academic foundation for food studies: dietetics and nutrition. According to Nestle, it offered the country’s first comprehensive degree programs, including undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Nestle, a well-known expert on nutrition and public health, was recruited in 1988 to chair what was then called the Department of Home Economics and Nutrition; it is now referred to as the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.

We are a long way from home economics. Today, a cadre of new programs—some of which feature elaborate new centers housing everything from state-of-the-art food science labs to conference spaces that host industry speakers—build on these foundations while focusing more strongly on themes of contemporary interest and career relevance, such as entrepreneurship and innovation, community engagement, and food policy. Arizona State University; University of Vermont; University of British Columbia; Montana State University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Oregon; and University of California, Davis are among those creating new centers, programs, or institutes around the study of food.

Three elements distinguish contemporary food studies programs: interdisciplinarity, community engagement, and systems thinking.

Interdisciplinarity, the crossing or connecting of multiple academic departments, is thought to better address the complexities inherent in food systems. Simone Cinotto, director of the Master of Gastronomy program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, echoes Nestle’s words, explaining that food has an “overwhelming presence in the human experience, touching every possible area—politics, geography, agriculture, health, anthropology, economics. It needs to be studied by a team, not in the isolation of different academic fields.”

Even at U.S. land-grant universities that were founded to advance agricultural studies, this recognition shapes both the curricula and the organizational structure of the programs within the university. For example, Montana State University’s program crosses both the College of Agriculture and the College of Food and Nutrition and encompasses four departments: Health and Human Development, Plant Science, Land Resources and Environmental Science, and Animal and Range Sciences.

Similarly, at Berkeley Food Institute, according to Madsen, students in the certificate of food systems program and its required core course, Transforming Food Systems, come from programs as diverse as public policy, business, natural resources, public health, environmental design, law, biology and education.

The second hallmark of food studies programs is community engagement. While the specific experiences can range from internships at local nonprofits to hackathons where students address food insecurity on campus, these elements are designed to ground students not only in theory but also in practice—and to supply them with the skills that future employers from corporations to community health clinics seek. William Valley, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, refers to such skill-building as “the sugar that makes the medicine go down.” At the same time, he explains, experiential learning, including experiencing first-hand the labor that makes food systems function, ensures students stay grounded in the realities of the work.

Such experiential education tends naturally toward activism. University of Vermont’s food studies program has “always been in the middle of the food movement,” says Amy Trubek, the founding faculty director of the graduate program in Food Systems. All undergraduates are required to do internships and, at the graduate level, master’s students engage in community-based learning and collaborative partnerships. Part of one such collaboration was a student-developed manual to guide food charities, which rely heavily on volunteers, about food safety protocols and the principles of food systems.

Community engagement also takes the form of entrepreneurship. At Montana State, an initiative called the Design Sandbox for Engaged Learning offered a class called Farm to Market, which was co-taught by faculty in food and nutrition, marketing, and graphic design. Two students in this class, Vanessa Walsten and Vanessa Williamson partnered to develop ways to help local farmers find additional streams of income. The experience led to the creation of the start-up company Farmented, which makes a line of fermented products out of vegetables that aren’t aesthetically ideal. Similarly, Berkeley’s program offers new courses taught by food entrepreneur and founding CEO of The Republic of Tea, Will Rosenzweig, with titles such as Food Innovation Studio, as well as Edible Education, which is co-taught with Alice Waters.

A third common element of contemporary food studies programs is systems thinking, which means training students in multiple theories and methodologies to prepare them to handle what Valley characterizes as the complexity and uncertainty of today’s global food systems. Trubek points especially to thorny issues of food politics, such as justice, food sovereignty, health inequities, and workers’ rights, calling them the “wicked problems of the day.”

Valley is explicit about the ways in which current food studies programs address the politics of food. At his university, food studies is rooted in the empiricism of the natural sciences. He says, “politics is a dirty word in the natural sciences. Initially, the program had more emphasis on environmental sustainability and economic viability. In the last five years, there has been more of a focus on social justice.”

Valley goes on to explain that in classes today, faculty and students face head-on issues, not just of food insecurity, but of “class, redistribution of wealth, inequality, gender, race, racism, white supremacy, colonization and decolonization. Five years ago, we used vague terms, dancing around these root causes. Now, we are better at talking about systemic forms of oppression, acknowledging this openly, and bringing these issues into natural sciences courses.”

Berkeley’s program comes at these issues through a focus on public policy, and Madsen says that new faculty recruits reflect the desire to address such issues head-on. For example, Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and One Fair Wage, teaches about food justice, workers’ rights, and food policy in her classes at the School of Public Policy and guest lectures on labor issues in the required core course.

Often, it is students who are helping reshape food studies programs. Stein says Montana State’s students are increasingly asking for classes on food and culture, ethnobotany, and resilience with an emphasis on climate change. She cites a new interdisciplinary course, Native Food Systems, taught in collaboration with the Native American Studies department, as one example.

Two food studies programs in Italy have also evolved from a traditional emphasis on gastronomy and cultural foodways to address the challenges of the modern global food system. The American University of Rome’s Center for Food Studies places its study of food production in the context of themes such as climate change, natural resources, hunger, obesity and food justice. While core courses continue to emphasize the socio-cultural, environmental, and health dimensions of food, contemporary interests such as food writing and rurality and development are also represented.

The University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo is the brainchild of Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International. Cinotto views the program he directs within that university, a one-year international course of study called Master of Gastronomy: World Food Cultures and Mobility, as training students to address what he calls the “awful shortcomings” of the contemporary food system. Specifically, Cinotto is trying to diversify the pool of instructors he recruits to teach, considering issues of gender, race, sexuality and class, with particular emphasis on representation from Latin America and Africa. New faculty includes Director of the Office of Racial Equity in San Francisco, Shakirah Simley; food historian and activist Michael Twitty; and NYU professor and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, Krishnendu Ray.

There are high expectations that graduates of today’s food studies programs will have gained the education, skills and experiences needed to become game changers, improving food systems and the ways in which societies engage with food. It is too soon to say how impactful the programs are, as many are less than a decade old. Some graduates have gone on to become dieticians in community health clinics, while others have become city planners emphasizing urban sustainability. Some graduates have founded food companies or mission-driven farms, such as University of British Columbia graduate Marc Schutzbank, who directs Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that creates community and school gardens on vacant parcels of land located on public school grounds. Kara Landolfi of Montana State became the farm-to-campus coordinator for the university’s culinary services, where she developed new innovative supply chain relationships, such as one with the local 4-H to source pork for campus dining.

Recent Berkeley graduate Daniela Solis is now with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. She says that with her education in food studies, “I was able to think critically about our food system in ways that extended beyond static measures of sustainability, and learned how to view issues from a more holistic viewpoint.” In addition to her interdisciplinary perspective, Solis says her training has allowed her to bring an optimism to her work on food systems—a hopefulness of seeing “meaningful change in food policy” within her lifetime. As she explains, “[that] change has to happen internally in organizations and individuals as much as it must happen at a larger scale.”

It is precisely this kind of organizational influence that food studies programs across the spectrum hope their graduates will spur—the kind that will bring the “meaningful change” in food systems that Solis hopes to see.