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Food Studies Programs Bring Potential for Change

Digging into Food

Falk College program breaks new ground in the emerging field of food studies.

Chef Collins and a student cooking over a stove
Many food studies courses feature opportunities for students to learn from Falk College’s full-time teaching chefs, including Bill Collins, in professional kitchen facilities. Photo by Susan Kahn.

When Anna Delapaz ’17 took Professor Rick Welsh’s Agroecology course as a first-year student in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics , she saw a fresh new world of scholarly and professional possibilities crop up in front of her. A nutrition major from Dallas whose interest in food sprouted when she read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma as a high school student, Delapaz enjoyed learning about agricultural production and sustainable agriculture in the class—exploring everything from the science of soil quality and nutrient cycling to the socioeconomic and policy aspects of how food is grown and produced. “From a nutrition perspective, I had been studying how food affects the body, which I found really interesting. Then in the Agroecology class, I learned about agriculture and what goes into making food, especially how to grow food in a sustainable way. I really saw that what we put in our bodies affects not only us, but the whole world around us,” she says. “That idea opened my eyes and made me want to learn more about the social, economic, and political aspects of food.”

No surprise, then, that when Falk College launched its undergraduate major in food studies in fall 2014—the original such bachelor’s degree program in the United States—Delapaz was the first to sign on as an official major, complementing her major in nutrition. Since then, she has taken every food studies course she can, and looks forward to becoming a registered dietitian and delving further into her special areas of interest in sustainable agriculture, community gardens, and improving food access. She is also considering pursuing a master’s degree in food studies—another new opportunity that is available at Falk. “I think having a background in both nutrition and food studies is a great way to fully grasp the complexity of food,” she says.

One of the reasons this came about is because students let us know they were interested in taking courses in food.

According to Welsh, who is chair of the Department of Public Health, Food Studies, and Nutrition and director for the undergraduate program in food studies, Delapaz’s enthusiasm for all things food-related is representative of a national trend—one that helped inform the program’s development. “Food studies is one of the fastest growing majors in the country. Programs are popping up lots of places, as well as minors and concentrations, which we also offer. And we’re starting to see a degree in food studies as one of the qualifications for food-related job listings now,” says Welsh, the Falk Family Endowed Professor in Food Studies, whose research and teaching focus on social change and development with emphases on agri-food systems, science and technology studies, and environmental sociology. “One of the reasons this came about is because students let us know they were interested in taking courses in food. They were passionate about food and ‘starving’ for classes with food-related content. So the need became obvious.”

Food studies faculty member Evan Weissman G’12 points to the broad picture of food studies as a developing field of study and practice. “We are living in a moment in history when questions about the food system are at the forefront of public consciousness,” says Weissman, coordinator of the minor in food studies. “Large and complex problems are linked to the food system, everything from climate change to public health crises in the United States, to questions of immigration and labor. All are connected to the ways we produce, distribute, access, and consume food and manage food waste.”

Delapaz and another woman pose in front of a large cooking pot
Food studies and nutrition major Anna Delapaz ’17 (left) cooks up ethnic dishes alongside people who hail from other countries through her internship with the community organization My Lucky Tummy. Photo courtesy of Falk College.

As food-related issues have become matters of public concern, Weissman says, a similar evolution is occurring in institutions of higher education. “You have the academy responding to shifts, recognizing the emergence of social movements focused on food and new economic opportunities around food, and acknowledging the fact that, when looking at food, it’s not just a story of doom and gloom, as I like to tell my students,” says Weissman, who studies disparities in fresh or healthful food access in urban America and grassroots efforts to address those inequities. “It’s also an uplifting story of people thinking about a variety of strategies to strengthen and improve our food system so it is more tuned to questions of social, public, and environmental health.”

When it comes to food, the potential for positive change ranges from the personal to the grand—from individuals and families making slight adjustments in their consumption and purchasing practices, to broad changes in the ways large businesses operate and in governmental policy shifts that have the capacity to affect countless people. “It’s against this backdrop that we see food studies emerging,” Weissman says. “In higher education, there’s a long history of people doing food-related work. Here at Falk, for example, our sister program in nutrition is nearing its 100th anniversary. In the United States, we have a history of land-grant institutions doing agricultural research, and Syracuse University had an agriculture program at one point in time. Social scientists have long looked at food as an indicator of inequality or as a question of labor or economics, as an insight into gender, or as a cultural marker in anthropology. Given the shifts in the public and in higher education toward transdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production and education, you have this groundswell leading to the growth of food studies.”

World of Food

The new Falk program is built on a social science foundation, specifically one with a political economic focus. “We take a holistic and multidimensional approach to understanding food as a process—as reflecting a host of relationships between people and institutions,” Weissman says. “We’re looking at questions of power and inequality. We’re looking at social transformations and the intersection of politics and economics as it shapes and is shaped by food.”

For example, Professor Anne Bellows, who is director of the food studies graduate degree program, focuses her scholarship and activism on the relationship between food-related issues and human rights, with a concentration on women’s access to adequate food and nutrition. She joined Falk College in 2013 from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, where she was chair of the Department of Gender and Nutrition. Her new book,  Gender, Nutrition and the Human Right to Adequate Food: Toward an Inclusive Framework  (Routledge, 2016), identifies conditions fueling food insecurity around the world and how those conditions disproportionally affect women, children, and rural food producers. “We’re interested in food studies as an explanatory vehicle for understanding social conditions more broadly—in learning how civil society interacts to create a democratic and just process of food governance,” Bellows says.

Minkoff-Zern stands at the front of a classroom lecturing
In her classes, food studies professor Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern challenges students to examine the food system, exploring problems and methods for improving it.

In her work, food studies faculty member Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern examines the interactions among food and racial justice, labor movements, and transnational environmental and agriculture policy as a framework for understanding how the food system operates and how it can be improved. In her Food Movements class, for example, students learn to think through the problems with the food system and explore methods for changing it, from the perspectives of social justice, the environment, and access to food. “Students also learn to be critical of solutions we have today and to think systematically about the food system and the structural ways to make changes, which challenges them to think beyond food as a consumer issue, seeing it as a bigger social issue,” says Minkoff-Zern, whose research has been informed by her work on farms and with agriculture and food organizations in Guatemala, New York State, and California. “In all our classes, we teach about the food system. For us, food is not just about what’s on your plate, but what’s growing in the ground. It’s about the water and the air and the workers—everything from the soil and how food gets to the market to how food gets prepared and who’s preparing it.”

The food studies program has its home in the Department of Public Health, Food Studies, and Nutrition in the new Falk Complex, allowing for important relationships with faculty in the college’s well-established partner programs. Among them are collaborations with public health professor David Larsen, a global health specialist researching malaria in southern Zambia; and with Jennifer Wilkins, the Daina E. Falk Endowed Professor of Practice in Nutrition. Her work focuses on nutrition in the food system, including the creation of  MyPlate Northeast , a regional food guide that emphasizes a nutritious and seasonally varied diet.

We are also building strong collaborations with the broader Syracuse community, where dynamic shifts are happening in terms of food as an economic development tool in Central New York...

Creating spaces and opportunities for interdisciplinary partnerships—both within Falk College and across campus—was an essential aspect of Dean Diane Lyden Murphy’s vision for the program. “When you’re building a program in food studies, you’re bringing together a mix of people to have a conversation about how to study and inquire about and make a difference through food: food as culture, food as critical, food as it relates to the social and political sciences, to geography and the STEM sciences, the humanities and the arts,” says Murphy ’67, G’76, G’78, G’83. “That deep interrogation across disciplines is where we wanted to go with this, and that’s what we’re excited about.” 

Another distinguishing characteristic of the program is the curriculum’s culinary component. Three full-time teaching chefs—Mary Kiernan G’12, Bill Collins, and Chris Uyehara—and professional kitchen facilities serve as valuable instructional resources and provide opportunities for hands-on food preparation labs to enhance student learning. In the course Philosophy and Practice of Locavorism, for instance, Bellows partners with chef Uyehara to provide students with an understanding of the what, why, and how of eating locally produced food year-round. Another example is Weissman’s Farm to Fork class, in which he partners with chef Kiernan in exploring the culinary theory and practice of alternative food networks through study, field trips, and a cooking laboratory. “We are also building strong collaborations with the broader Syracuse community, where dynamic shifts are happening in terms of food as an economic development tool in Central New York, and where there are a lot of grassroots efforts to strengthen our food system and improve food access,” Weissman says.

Amy Speach

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • Food Studies Major

    Explore contemporary food issues and prepare to affect positive change on local, national, and global levels.

  • Experiential Learning at Falk

    Undergraduate and graduate students work closely with their advisors to identify areas of interest for research and practicum experience.