Jan Ellen Spiegel
The study of food has had a home in higher education for generations. Nutrition programmes are commonplace. Culinary schools were around long before Julia Child turned Le Cordon Bleu on its butter-sauced ear. Now colleges and universities have come to realise 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. Its agriculture; its business; its health; its the economy; its the environment; its international relations; its 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. For Sarah Jacobson,the food studies programme at the University of New Hampshire,called EcoGastronomy,was a way to bring more relevance to her interests in nutrition and sustainable food systems.
Most nutrition majors think about the food and not the system thats producing food, she says. By bridging dietetics and sustainable food systems,I can help change the food system.
People are working with food and working with agriculture in ways you never thought of before, she says. Its not just the traditional jobs anymore.
The first food studies programmes began in the mid-1990s at New York University and Boston University. Now there is an array of programme and degree structures,based on different goals and what programmes are in place.
Schools also are tailoring programmes to their geographic areas and demographics. The University of Vermont,given its land-grant status,takes an agricultural angle. At the New School,which started a food studies programme 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 Schoolthink additives,genetically modified food and one of the newest concerns,cloned foodas well as food history.
Historically youve had nutrition programmes, he says. Historically youve had anthropologists looking at food. You might have some historian come along and look at sugar and how sugar has impacted things. But you dont 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 labour 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. In 2009,when she heard about Indianas food anthropology Ph.D. programme,I was in there in a week.
Minards specialty is food waste. She has begun photographing lunch plates at fraternities and sororities. 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 Im studying. You get that smirky look. Oh,thats nice. But when I explain it,the smirk goes away.