Truly Food for Thought (New York Times)


Published: April 13, 2012

THE study of food has had a home in higher education for generations. Agriculture was a founding mission of the land-grant university system started in the 1860s. Nutrition programs are commonplace. Culinary schools were around long before Julia Child turned Le Cordon Bleu on its butter-sauced ear.

But in an era of widespread interest, if not downright concern, about how that ear of corn, destined for a pot of boiling water on a perfect summer evening is grown, processed, marketed, distributed and used — and what it means for health, commerce, the economy and even the ecological state of the planet — colleges and universities have come to realize that the classic food disciplines simply will not do anymore.

And so food studies was born.

This new academic field, taking shape in an expanding number of colleges and universities, coordinates the food-related instruction sprinkled throughout academia in recognition that food is not just relevant, but critical to dozens of disciplines. It’s agriculture; it’s business; it’s health; it’s the economy; it’s the environment; it’s international relations; it’s war and peace.

Food studies is being embraced by students interested in new careers in food safety reform, local-food businesses and anti-obesity, equity and climate efforts, as well as those seeking broader contexts for traditional disciplines like culinary arts and farming.

For Sarah Jacobson, the food studies program at the University of New Hampshire, called EcoGastronomy, was a way to bring more relevance to her interests in nutrition and sustainable food systems. The program — started in 2008, and with more than 60 enrolled last fall already past its five-year goal of 50 students — is a dual major that includes electives from a dozen different departments and a required semester studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.

Ms. Jacobson already has a degree in animal sciences but is doing this second bachelor’s to add context and information to what she feels is often outdated dietetics training (consider the well-worn mantra that there is no “good food” or “bad food,” just moderation).

“Most nutrition majors think about the food and not the system that’s producing food,” she says. “I did not want to simply navigate through what I call a broken food supply. By bridging dietetics and sustainable food systems, I can help change the food system.”

That means instead of working in a traditional clinical setting, she will take her training to so-called food deserts, where low-income people cannot get fresh food, let alone afford it. Ms. Jacobson has already brought food stamps to a farmers market in New Hampshire.

“People are working with food and working with agriculture in ways you never thought of before,” she says. “It’s not just the traditional jobs anymore.” (Good Food Jobs, a Web site started in 2010 to dovetail with the field, has postings for hundreds of jobs, among them sustainable farming internships, nonprofit business management and community garden advising.)

The first food studies programs began in the mid-1990s at New York University and Boston University. While there is more published scholarship and better-trained faculty today, there have been growing pains as schools try to stitch together a field of study across departments that have not always communicated, through bureaucracies that often move slowly, and against old notions that certain aspects of food are not worthy of serious study. One result has been an array of program and degree structures, based on different goals and what programs are in place.

Indiana University, for example, houses its food Ph.D. and undergraduate minor in the anthropology department, because using an existing framework made them easier to set up. That is a lesson the University of California, Davis, learned the hard way. It took 10 years before it finally got its major in sustainable agriculture and food systems up and running last fall.

Schools also are tailoring programs to their geographic areas and demographics. The University of Vermont, given its land-grant status, takes an agricultural angle. It established a minor in 2007 and will begin a master’s program in the fall, spurred by the observation that issues around food had become too complex to view through a single academic lens.

At the New School, which started a food studies program in 2008, classes have urban bents (“Food and Migration,” “Urban Agriculture”) that accommodate three core areas: culture and communications; policy and politics; and nutrition, public health and environment.

Andrew F. Smith teaches contemporary food controversies at the New School — think additives, genetically modified food and one of the newest concerns, cloned food — as well as food history.

“Historically you’ve had nutrition programs,” he says. “Historically you’ve had anthropologists looking at food. You might have some historian come along and look at sugar and how sugar has impacted things. But you don’t have a place in a university where everybody gets together and talks about food in itself with all of its different dimensions.”

For example, the rise of canned and frozen foods allowed more women to enter the workforce around World War II. In a traditional history class, that would be one sentence. But a look at history through food would explore the changing roles of women, increased leisure time, the invention of refrigerated trucking (and thus a better ability to transport food), and what that did to the labor force, as well as the need for new quality control.

Sara Minard has seen the before and after of the food studies trend. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin considering a thesis on African-American customs and practices, she was told that there was no faculty to support her and that she was on her own. She opted for an existing major. In 2009, when she heard about Indiana’s food anthropology Ph.D. program, “I was in there in a week.”

Ms. Minard’s specialty is food waste — a growing concern over the vast quantities of usable food that is jamming landfills and producing contamination while many go hungry. She has begun photographing lunch plates at fraternities and sororities, before and after, to monitor waste patterns. One discovery: “Young ladies in sororities do not like to eat egg yolks,” she says. “But they will eat ice cream.”

“People laugh when I talk about what I’m studying. You get that smirky look. ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But when I explain it, the smirk goes away.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a frequent contributor to the Connecticut pages of The Times.

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