Teaching Food in the U.S.: Notes From the Field of Food Studies, Part 1

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Tufts University’s Agriculture, Food and the Environment program started 20 years ago as a small program, an experiment at a school focused largely on nutrition. Today, it is the largest graduate program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, which offers many graduate degrees.

The rise of the food movement in the past few years is undeniable. There has been increased attention on food issues in the media and among the public. The number of farmers markets and the demand for organic production indicate a growing sense that where food comes from is an important factor in what and how we choose to eat. As a result, Tufts University is not the only program developing the field of food studies. A rising number of related research centers, new degree programs and curriculums have been developed to match students’ interest in food studies.

As part of our series on global food affairs, Pro Journo gathered a webinar panel of four scholars from innovative university programs in the United States. The objective was to explore the evolution of food studies at universities around the world and to highlight the truly interdisciplinary nature of this field.

We asked the panelists what they’re seeing, what they’re teaching and what they’re finding in their research. They told us about a rapidly changing field, infused with the creativity of its students — one that is both globally focused and regionally informed.

A Growing Field

The field of food studies has boomed in recent decades. A 2012 article in The New York Times describes this phenomenon, noting the first food studies programs that emerged in the U.S. in the 1990s and the field’s growth since.

Accordingly, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is one program that was created in this boom; established in 1996, it has grown to 25 full-time faculty and 15 funded doctoral fellows studying food and its connection to public health issues. For Dr. Roni Neff, director of the center’s Food System Sustainability Program, it is a vibrant community where the connections between diet, food production, environment and public health are studied together.

Across the country, Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment has created an intellectual home for researchers and faculty addressing issues of global hunger, poverty and environmental degradation. A recently published book, “The Evolving Sphere of Food Security,” which features 19 Stanford scholars writing about global food security from the perspective of fields including earth science, economics, law, and medicine and political science, showcases the center’s interdisciplinary approach to the issue.

In Wisconsin, where big agri-businesses dominate, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems was born a quarter-century ago on the floor of the state’s Legislature, a mandate in response to industry needs. Dr. Michael Bell, the center’s director, is a faculty member in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s agroecology master’s program, which focuses on training students in building ecological diversity into agricultural systems.

And these fast-growing programs devoted to food, food security and agriculture are just a handful among the dozens at universities around the U.S.

Abundant Opportunities

The demand for graduates well versed in food issues is also growing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for food and agriculture scientists are expected to grow by almost 10 percent over the next 10 years. And with an aging farmer population in the U.S., many schools are training the next generation of farmers, both commercial and small-scale. State and university based programs (such as Cornell University’s Northeast Beginning Farmers Project), teach young people as they bring fresh ideas to farming. This has been accompanied by the emergence of food entrepreneurs, small businesses, and nonprofits that are hiring young food graduates, as evidenced by the newly created Good Food Jobs, an online search tool for jobs specifically related to food systems.

We asked the panelists where their students are going after they graduate. They replied that as the food movement grows, students are now finding employment opportunities across all sectors and in new and creative enterprises.

According to Dr. Timothy Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts, students are now finding work not just in nonprofits but also in all levels of government and in the private sector, where solutions to food challenges are also being forged.

“We’ve had some entrepreneurs, students who have graduated and started businesses, all the way up to students who work for big companies in the food system,” he said. Griffin himself works not only within academia but also with growers and farm advisers on the development and implementation of sustainable production systems.

The other panelists echoed this, saying that their graduates find work in policymaking, at foundations, with companies and sometimes even as farmers.

“There is no lack of employment opportunities, and it’s also a very creative area too — a lot of students are making their own [opportunities] as well,” noted Bell.

Local Considerations

With its proximity to Silicon Valley, Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment has drawn on local resources to explore technological solutions to food insecurity. According to Laura Seaman, the center’s communications and external relations manager, students are applying technology to food security and development challenges.

Asked where students go after they graduate, she said, “We are also seeing more interest from some of our students in the private sector. Specifically because of our location, looking at some of the tech companies in Silicon Valley for ways technology can be leveraged for what we do, which is in the international development field.”

Johns Hopkins’ Neff offered a similar view, saying the university’s researchers are focused on transforming their findings into action, including policy work. “I would say our location plays into that a lot as well, in Baltimore, so we get a lot of people going into policy in D.C.,” she said.

We also asked the panelists about the difference between studying domestic food systems and international ones. While each program has been inclined toward one or the other, they said there are no distinct lines between the two.

The programs at Tufts and the University of Wisconsin–Madison have been traditionally more domestically focused but are starting to look abroad. For instance, in Wisconsin Bell is working with a cooperative of farmers in South Africa on an agroecological approach to health and development.

Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment has done much of its work internationally, but for Seaman there is no either/or. “Food insecurity knows no geographic boundaries,” she said.

“What we really focus on is training students to work in these inter-disciplinary environments, training them in the specific set of skills that allows them to do that,” Seaman continued. “Recognizing that there’s still a need for specialists, but being able to have people who are literate in all facets of the food system — that’s really been the target of the program since the beginning.”

Cross-Pollination

This is what we also heard from Tufts’ Griffin, and in some form from every one of our panelists. It is the cross-pollination from across disciplines that really informs food studies and drives it forward.

A new textbook edited by Neff, “Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity,” offers a public health perspective on food systems while drawing in differing views, like the new book from Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment.

For Bell, this diversity of thought and perspective drives the field in new and unexpected directions such as micro-livestock, or raising insects for human consumption.

Spreading the Word

Being a journalism incubator, we thought it only appropriate to close the webinar by asking our panelists where they get their food news. They left us with some great sources, and an imperative.

The panelists mentioned mainstream publications like National Geographic’s special project called The Future of Food, the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and FarmPolicy.com. They also mentioned the academic journals they read.

“Still being science geek, I follow some of the high-quality academic science journals, which do a remarkable job of covering food security,” said Griffin.

But there is often a disconnect between the work that appears in academic journals and that which makes it into the mainstream media.

According to Bell, “There’s a lot of smaller journals that get lost out there — there’s great opportunity for people in journalism to help us translate some of the work that they’re doing.”

Read also Teaching Food in Europe: Notes from the Field of Food Studies, Part 2.

One thought on “Teaching Food in the U.S.: Notes From the Field of Food Studies, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Teaching Food in Europe: Notes From the Field of Food Studies, Part 2 | Pro Journo

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