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Field Studies
In Exploring Culture, Politics and the Environment, Food Programs Hit the Academic Mainstream

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This Sunday, 80 Yale University freshmen will take their first step toward higher education. But there'll be no reading list or, for that matter, showers. On the syllabus: digging up carrots, picking tomatoes and building chicken coops.

The students, who make up 6 percent of the Class of 2012, are part of a pre-orientation program that lets students experience life on a family-owned organic farm. Once on campus, they will be able to register for any of this year's 19 food and agriculture courses, such as the popular "Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food." The number of food-related courses is up almost 50 percent from five years ago.

"There's a generation of students that understand that the modern world has been shaped by agriculture, and they are turning to their curriculum to understand those connections," says Melina Shannon-DiPietro, director of the six-year-old Yale Sustainable Food Project, which runs the pre-orientation program.

It might not be surprising to find a focus on food at Yale, with its high-profile on-campus farm and dining halls stocked with organic and local food, the brainchild of Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters. And several pioneering schools, such as Boston University and New York University, have offered food studies programs for more than a decade.

But food is now entering the academic mainstream: The University of New Hampshire this year will launch a dual major in eco-gastronomy that it hopes will attract 50 students to study food culture and small-batch cooking and spend a semester at Slow Food's university in Bra, Italy. The University of California at Davis this fall will introduce a food concentration for American studies majors.

In addition, courses with such titles as "Cultural Foods: Geography of Food and Wine" and "Cooking Up a Storm: Exploring Food in American Culture" are being offered in anthropology, economics, English, environmental studies and sociology departments across the country. Professors report they are popular across the board: At the University of California at Santa Cruz, an introductory anthropology class called "Food Through Culture" is capped at 70 students. But, says the professor, Melissa Caldwell, it could easily enroll at least twice that many. The course, previously taught sporadically, is likely to be offered yearly to meet the demand. Yale's "Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food," taught for the first time in fall 2006, had to be moved to one of the college's largest lecture halls to accommodate the 325 students who registered.

Professors point to several reasons behind the boom in food studies. One is competition for enrollment. As more students profess a broader awareness of food and its cultural and environmental implications, colleges are scrambling to offer courses to attract them.

Trends in academia also are fueling the growth. First, the explosion of food literature has produced books students want to read. "When I first taught a course on food seven years ago, it was hard to find books," says Carolyn de la Peña, associate professor of American studies at UC Davis. Instead, she had to use narrow, often technical articles that didn't appeal to students.

In the past 10 years, a body of literature has emerged: Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Morgan Spurlock's documentary film "Super Size Me," among others. "You can hand them to a student, and they can see how their own choices affect labor practices or health or the environment," de la Peña says. Among the books on her syllabus this year: Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl's memoir, "Tender at the Bone," and "Horsemen of the Esophagus," a book about competitive eating.

"A lot of professors think practically and ask, are there books I can actually use?" agrees Warren Belasco, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a pioneer in food studies. "Now there are."

Academic publishers have picked up on the trend and are rushing to fill the gaps. Belasco's "Food: The Key Concepts" (Berg Publishers) will be published in November. Greenwood, an academic press, this year released four books on international food culture and will publish a five-book series, "Food Culture in America," next summer. "Every publisher wants to have something, a definitive intro to the field," Belasco says.

Not that food studies courses are all about reading. De la Peña sends her students to restaurants to observe and to their home kitchens to make their versions of comfort food. In Belasco's class, at the end of the semester each student is asked to cook a dish that would please every author on the class syllabus: "The idea is to force them to go over the course and think about what the author's main point of view is."

What do they bring? "A lot of salads," Belasco says.

Academic acceptance of interdisciplinary fields, such as American or women's studies, has also paved the way for food's debut as a legitimate subject. "Food studies answers the craving for interdisciplinary exchange among professors across the sciences and humanities that has been growing for a decade," says de la Peña, who launched UC Davis's food concentration and helped hire a full-time professor who teaches in both the American studies and food science and nutrition departments.

A new generation of teachers is developing new courses. For years, many professors were teaching classes that touched on food though that wasn't their area of expertise, Belasco says. But "today, younger academics who were not discouraged from studying food and have got their degrees in the last 10 years are turning around and proposing food courses."

Finally, universities' emphasis on sustainability, in operations and in the classroom, is paving the way for a greater number of food classes. The new UNH eco-gastronomy major, for example, is an initiative of the university's office of sustainability, which also promotes biodiversity, climate and culture projects.

The degree requires five courses at UNH, including introduction to eco-gastronomy, sustainable food production, and food and society, plus a semester abroad at Slow Food's University for Gastronomic Sciences, which teaches artisanal production and oenology. Unlike some other gastronomy programs, UNH's dual major formally links food appreciation to sustainable food systems. "We want to show students that putting a carrot in your mouth is not just putting a carrot in your mouth. It's who grew it, how it got to you, who produced the seeds," says Daniel Winans, a lecturer who will teach the introductory course.

Professors acknowledge that all the courses in the world aren't going to end college students' love affair with pizza and beer. But they are optimistic that academic food study will empower students to make more-informed choices about food. "Initially, students like to say that as poor students they can't make any changes. They can't afford any more than Subway or Hot Pockets," says Stephanie Hartman, who has taught food and writing courses at George Washington University and Catholic University. "But once you have gone from ignorance to a greater understanding of how your choices impact the food system, you can't go back."

That's the case for Yale junior Kris Baxivanos, who grew up in the farming town of Fallston, Md. "My parents cracked the champagne when they sent me to Yale," says Baxivanos, a women's studies major concentrating on food and agriculture. "My parents thought I'd go off and become a corporate CEO, and here I am coming back with a pitchfork."

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