Majoring in Food: Colleges Offering More Courses, Degrees

As the food movement grows, the demand for college and university classes focusing on food systems is exploding.

Good Food Vanguard

When professor Jennifer Otten stands in front of her first classes this Fall, she’ll see a student in every seat and know that the names of dozens more fill a waiting list. Each of the undergraduate courses she teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle have more than doubled since she started teaching them three years ago, outgrowing lecture halls and even attracting the attention of graduate students hoping to sit in.

What exactly is luring so many students to Otten’s classes? Is she offering an easy A?

On the contrary, the courses in question have names like “Food Studies: Harvest to Health” and “U.S. Food and Nutrition Policy,” niche subjects that would have attracted a much smaller and more specialized student population just a few years ago. These days, though, UW undergrads from every major flock to the university’s ever-expanding slate of food courses—often with little knowledge of the topic, says Otten. “I have really high attendance, which is unusual for an undergraduate class,” she says, adding that the students are also often more willing to participate than usual.

This surge of interest in food as an academic subject extends beyond the classroom at UW. Students at the university volunteer with food justice groups, support campus farms, and some even live together in new “food exploration” dorms. Otten attributes all this, in part, to the school’s location in food-progressive Seattle. But it’s happening everywhere—from the coasts to small college towns and everywhere in between.

A few recent examples showcase the growth of food-related courses in higher education:

More than 70 community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities now have specific degree programs for sustainable agriculture or food systems. This growth in interest on college campuses nationwide comes at a time when interest in food—and specifically local, sustainable food—is fomenting in popular culture at large, says pioneer food systems educator Dr. Molly Anderson of Middlebury College in Vermont.

“This is trickling down into student interest, but it’s also surging up from students into colleges and universities,” she says. “Students are demanding these courses, demanding that there be attention to food, and demanding that there be student farms set up at their colleges and universities.”

Like the Millennial generation before them, today’s college students are obsessed with food. In fact, this is precisely why professor Anderson was invited to teach at Middlebury this Fall. Students there have for a few years been asking for more courses, and possibly a degree program, in sustainable food. Anderson developed the landmark program at Tufts University in 1995, which she directed for five years, and most recently launched a successful sustainable food systems program at College of the Atlantic. At Middlebury, she’ll teach food systems courses while working with students and faculty to “figure out what’s needed” in terms of the larger food focus of the school.

“I suspect the students really want a major in food studies, or sustainable food systems, and I suspect the faculty want something more like a cluster of food courses,” she says. “My job is to reconcile those two.”

Anderson adds that two decades after co-founding what became a nationally recognized sustainable food program at Tufts, many of today’s students bring a deeper concern for issues of justice and inequality than their predecessors.

“You see students now coming in who want to work on farmworker issues and Native American health—things I wasn’t really seeing at all when I started the Agriculture, Food & Environment program at Tufts,” she says. “Social justice was a smaller theme.”

Learning more about the many facets of food earlier in life may also deepen students’ interest in food courses once they get to college. Take recent University of Washington graduate Ryan Laws, for example. Laws grew up in the Berkeley public school system and participated throughout elementary and middle school in Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard programming. When he got to college, Laws took both of Otten’s classes, he says, and by the time he graduated with a degree in medical anthropology, he had racked up around 10 food-related courses.

“I took one and caught the bug,” he says.

Laws isn’t alone. Otten says about 60 percent of her introductory Food Studies students go on to take her Food Policy course, and that students from both classes have taken that interest and gotten involved in the campus groups like Real Food Challenge.

Challenges arise, of course, anytime a social movement makes its way to the lecture halls of the academy. A historical pitfall to avoid is the “professionalization” of the food movement, whereby experts in the field are expected to earn an undergraduate degree in food systems, says Dr. Christine Porter, who directs Food Dignity, a collaboration between three universities, one college and five community-based organizations which in 2011 received a $5 million grant by the United States Department of Agriculture to build sustainable food systems that create food security.

The cost of a college education and “massive overhang of student debt” remain challenges as well, says Dr. Krishnendu Ray, who chairs the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. He sees, however, opportunities for even more young Americans to study food at community colleges, which have recently begun rolling out programs of their own.

If you talk to enough academic food activists, though, the majority say the movement is and always has been in the fields and markets, and the academic revolution we’re witnessing ought to serve in a supporting role to community-based organizations—not the other way around.

This has worked well at North Carolina-based NC Choices, a program based out of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at the North Carolina State University, which works with businesses along the state’s supply chain to support sustainable local meat production and sales. Director Sarah Blacklin—who says she had to create her own undergraduate degree program at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill “because there weren’t any food courses”—now lectures to 400 students there and has seen a sharp uptick in student interest in the food supply chain work NC Choices is doing. The collaboration stands as an example of how classroom learning can and should be translated into real-world action.

“You might have heard the phrase that communities have problems and universities have departments,” says Porter of Food Dignity. “While that highlights a need for more systemic approaches in education and knowledge generation, it also ignores a crucial point: Communities also have solutions.”

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  1. Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
    I love, love, love this article and it's so nice to see young people who have grown up understanding the importance of real, sustainable food and how important their involvement in this is going to be for them and future generations. Hopefully none of this is being secretly funded by Monsanto inserting their lies about how wonderful GMO's are and that they will feed the world when everyday another country rejects what they are selling. More young people also need to go into the culinary arts as public schools start getting back to cooking real foods in schools, from local sustainable sources and getting away from pre-packaged non-nutritional, GMO laden junk food. I'm so excited to see this ripple effect and hope the wave continues. Love it!
  2. Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
    Sterling College in Vermont has an entire major dedicated to sustainable food systems: http://www.sterlingcollege.edu/academics/areas-of-study/sustainable-food-systems/
  3. Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
    Don't forget Green Mountain College Master of Sustainable Food Systems! :)
  4. Ferdinand Wirth
    Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
    For more than 50 years, Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia has offered a BS degree in Food Marketing. It is the most popular major on campus, with about 600 undergraduates (1 in every 8.5 undergrads majors in Food Marketing). Twenty percent of the students major in our five-year Co-op degree and work three times for major food industry employers. Each experience lasts up to 7 months. SJU Food Marketing also offers the world's only Executive MBA and MS degrees in Food Marketing.
  5. Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
    Thanks to Mr. Holt for the article on the immense popularity of sustainable agriculture and food systems on college campuses.

    I would add to his coverage that UC Santa Cruz was the first university to involve students academically in sustainable agriculture and food systems through its Center for Agroecology and Food Systems as well as the 6-month apprenticeships on the farm. It now has two endowed chairs related to the agroecology program. In California, the first and only formal undergraduate major in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems is at UC Davis, where a chair in agroecology is also being established.
  6. Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
    There is also a new Food Studies MA program at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco. One month old! www.pacific.edu/foodstudies
  7. Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015
    Syracuse University initiated its Food Studies program in February of 2014. The M.S. is beginning next fall. Check us out.
  8. Rick Welsh
    Thursday, September 24th, 2015
    There is a BS and MS in Food Studies at Syracuse University
  9. Friday, September 25th, 2015
    The Department of Food Science and Technology at Oregon State University is one of the nation’s oldest established programs. With world-class faculty, research and facilities, we prepare students to be industry leaders.

    Our department is a key player in OSU’s drive to build healthy communities, a sustainable planet and a thriving economy.

    http://oregonstate.edu/foodsci/
    http://fic.oregonstate.edu/
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