Colleges, universities starting to see value of food study programs

I’ve often wondered, when looking at the “core” subjects being required by most major colleges and universities, why agriculture is rarely ever found in any listing.

Students — regardless of their major — are compelled to take English, math, biology and the like, but agriculture has always been treated as a very specialized field, although it touches all of our lives. Biology teaches us about the structure and function of the human body and of other living organisms, but isn’t it just as important that we have at least some knowledge of the food that sustains life — how it is grown, where it is grown, how it is processed?

Food and agriculture have been a part of higher education to some degree for generations, with agriculture being the founding mission of the land-grant university system that began in the 1860s. But many colleges and schools of agriculture have struggled to remain relevant in a society that takes its food source for granted.

However, there might be a glimmer of hope that this is changing somewhat. A recent article in The New York Times discusses the emergence of “food studies” — a new academic field that “coordinates the food-related instruction sprinkled throughout academia in recognition that food is not just relevant, but critical to dozens of disciplines.”

A true food studies program, states the writing, must take into account agriculture, business, health, the economy, the environment and even international relations. Yes, food can mean the difference between war and peace, freedom and servitude, democracy and tyranny — if only our representatives in Washington, D.C., would recognize this.

The article notes that schools throughout the United States are trying to stitch together a field of study across departments that haven’t always communicated, and they’re fighting old notions that certain aspects of food simply are not worthy of serious study.

The article continues, saying that 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.

It’s also interesting that schools are tailoring these food studies programs to fit their geographic areas and demographics. Examples given in the article include the University of Vermont, a land-grant school that approaches its curriculum from an agricultural angle. Leaders at the university have decided the issues surrounding food have become too complex to be viewed through a single academic lens.

On the other hand, the New School, based in New York City, has a food studies program based more on urban issues, with classes such as “Food and Migration” and “Urban Agriculture.” The program accommodates three core areas: culture and communications; policy and politics; and nutrition, public health and environment.

So what has spurred this renewed interest in food? Colleges and universities finally have come to the realization the classic food disciplines simply won’t work anymore. This comes “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,” according to the article.

This is certainly a heartening bit of news for the agricultural community — to a degree. It’s good that people are taking more of an interest in their food. It’s long overdue. But experience tells us there’s also an inherent danger.

The danger comes when a person’s interest in food borders on a near-obsession, and the near-obsession is then coupled with a media and culture that thrive on mass hysteria, such as that created with the “pink slime” controversy.

What’s good about communications technology today is the same as what’s bad about it — an unlimited access to unlimited sources of information. We’re more informed than ever, but we seem to know less, especially about our own food. Maybe this resurgence in food studies is a step in the right direction.

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