The study of food has had a home in higher education for generations. Agriculture was a founding mission of the land-grant university system started in the 1860s. Nutrition programmes are commonplace. Culinary schools were around long before Julia Child turned Le Cordon Bleu on its butter-sauced ear.
But 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 — 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. It’s agriculture; it’s business; it’s health; it’s the economy; it’s the environment; it’s international relations; it’s 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, as well as those seeking broader contexts for traditional disciplines like culinary arts and farming.
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. The programme — started in 2008, and with more than 60 enrolled last fall already past its five-year goal of 50 students — is a dual major that includes electives from a dozen different departments and a required semester studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.
The first food studies programme began in the mid-1990s at New York University and Boston University. While there is more published scholarship and better-trained faculty today, there have been growing pains as schools try to stitch together a field of study across departments that have not always communicated, through bureaucracies that often move slowly, and against old notions that certain aspects of food are not worthy of serious study. One result has been an array of programme and degree structures, based on different goals and what programmes are in place.
At the New School, which started a food studies program 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 School —think additives, genetically modified food and one of the newest concerns, cloned food — as well as food history.
“Historically you’ve had nutrition programs,” he says. “Historically you’ve had anthropologists looking at food. You might have some historian come along and look at sugar and how sugar has impacted things. But you don’t 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 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 and that she was on her own. She opted for an existing major. In 2009, she heard about Indiana’s food anthropology PhD programme.
Minard’s specialty is food waste — a growing concern over the vast quantities of usable food that is jamming landfills and producing contamination while many go hungry. She has begun photographing lunch plates at fraternities and sororities, to monitor waste patterns. 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 I'm studying. ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But when I explain it, the smirk goes away.”
Food Studies at New York University is the first masters degree programme in the US devoted to food scholarship. In doing so, the department in 1996 formalised an emerging field as a state-accredited academic entity. Amy Bentley, associate professor, department of nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University, spoke to AVIJIT CHATTERJEE.
1. Can Indian students apply to the food studies course at New York
● Yes Indian students can apply to our food studies programme at the undergraduate, masters and doctorate levels.
2. Are there any scholarships for
● There are no specific scholarships for Indian students, only the regular routes of financial aid and small scholarships to which all students can apply.
3. Will Indian students be allowed to work in the US after successful
completion of their course?
● Eligibility to work in the US is determined by visa status.
4. What are the job opportunities
outside the US?
● Students of food studies are trained to understand and critically analyse both traditional and alternative food systems in the United States and beyond. They are taught to understand the important historical, cultural and social aspects of food. These multiple skill sets make them valuable to a variety of institutions, including government, for-profit and non-profit institutions, academia and industry. Food will only continue to remain an important topic, so I should think that it is an area of potential employment that will grow in the future.