ANN ARBOR, Mich. — This fall, the University of Michigan will start offering an undergraduate minor in sustainable food systems. It is not alone. Courses about food and food systems are showing up in course catalogs in grade schools, graduate schools and Internet mega-classes. This trend — and this series itself, a six-month exploration of organic agriculture — reflects the rising importance of food issues in culture, business, politics and academia. The question is, Why has food garnered this much attention? And why now?
“There is a huge surge in interest in food,” said associate professor William Currie at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. The new minor, as well as the new class he created this spring on food security in the future, is part of what he calls a “customer service” approach to addressing student interests. At the same time, the university happened to be starting an initiative to hire more faculty for interdisciplinary work across schools, and the food systems minor was a great fit.
Lilly Shapiro, a master’s student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, takes a broader perspective. “What’s happening at Michigan is a microcosm of what’s happening around the country and the world,” she said. Like so many others, both students and faculty members, she points to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals as one of the principal cultural catalysts for the food movement, along with other works such as the documentaries Food Inc. and Supersize Me.
Currie cites the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ recognition in 2007 of sustainability science as a branch of science, on a par with physics and other major branches, as a turning point for academia. “Food production has come to the fore as part of this science,” he explained.
Still, even with new faculty and student programs, an official minor and greater recognition from the scientific community, neither Currie nor Shapiro is certain of the future of sustainable food systems as a field of study or a trend in broader society. “To some extent it is a fad,” said Currie, adding that “20 years ago there was a huge interest in acid rain.”
Shapiro wonders if sustainable food systems will get its own department, much like gender studies or civil rights, but she’s ambivalent about whether she wants to see this happen. A false sense of “having made it” could stop people from pushing for change. After all, she said, “studying food is not new.”
The study of food and culture is relatively well established, and land grant universities like Michigan State University, a leader in agriculture science, do cutting-edge work in the field. What is new, Shapiro claimed, is the college’s approach. “UM is proposing to study food from an interdisciplinary perspective, integrating public health and social, political and environmental aspects of the food system,” she said.
This interdisciplinary approach itself may be a partial answer to the original question: Why food? Well, because food systems serve as a framework for integrating so many different disciplines and areas of interest to researchers and governing bodies, from the environment to public health.
But why now? Shapiro recalled a girl she used to baby-sit for who did not believe that her dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget actually came from a chicken. She couldn’t believe how little the girl knew about the origins of her food. “We’ve gotten to a point where people are fed up,” Shapiro said.
They are fed up with food recalls, food crises and obesity. And they are fed up with the distance between themselves and their food. The rise in the number of people choosing food as part of their professional lives may be a response to this frustration. Currie and Shapiro reflect this integration of personal and professional interests.
Currie’s research interest, including the ways people influence land use and agriculture, is one factor in his teaching a food scenarios class, but his “illuminating” experiment — being vegetarian for six months — was another. Shapiro, an undergraduate anthropology major, found herself scribbling ethnographic notes after long meals with her study-abroad family during a semester in France. “They approach a meal so differently than we do!” she said. These transformative dinner-table experiences started her on a path that eventually led her to a more science-oriented focus on food and public health.
In this way, the new academic study of food isn’t just interdisciplinary; in fact, it has no boundaries. And everyone can have a place at the table.