Syracuse University Magazine

Digging into Food

Digging into Food

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

By Amy Speach

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 will be available at Falk starting this fall. “I think having a background in both nutrition and food studies is a great way to fully grasp the complexity of food,” she says.

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.”

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.”

 



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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.



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.

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.

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.



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Rick Welsh (left), chair of the Department of Public Health, Food Studies, and Nutrition, welcomes guest speaker Seth Goldman, co-founder and “TeaEO” of Honest Tea, a company recognized for its healthful products and ethical and transparent business practices.

Photo by Steve Sartori



Active Learning

Such experiential learning is a key element of the food studies curriculum, both in the classroom and beyond. “We use a wide variety of teaching and learning modalities,” Weissman says. “That creates an exciting program for our students and helps them acquire the knowledge and skills needed for success beyond Syracuse University.”

In Weissman’s Feeding the City course, which was recognized with a 2015 Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement and Scholarship, students work on semester-long, community-based projects to put their learning into action. Students partnered with the Syracuse-Onondaga Planning Agency to conduct a basic food system analysis, using an assets-based approach to thinking about Central New York, focusing not on deficits but on strengths that might be leveraged to bolster the food system and better attend to environmental, social, political economic, and public health concerns. “We’ve also partnered with Nojaim Brothers grocery store and the technology startup, Rosie—a web-based tool for food delivery—and helped the owner, Paul Nojaim, to think about marketing and outreach strategies and possibilities of using this technology to expand his customer base and increase access for individuals who otherwise would not have it,” Weissman says.

The Emergency Food Systems course Bellows teaches also creates opportunities for active learning. In January, students toured the Hendricks Chapel food pantry and considered ideas for class projects that would help the pantry better serve the SU students who periodically draw on its assistance. And in her Gender, Food, Rights course, Bellows arranged for graduate students to meet via Skype with the gender coordinator at FIAN International (FoodFirst Information and Action Network), a human rights organization with members from more than 50 countries that advocates for the right to adequate food and nutrition. “At FIAN, they are working to develop new indicators to monitor the impact of right-to-food approaches on national food and nutrition security,” says Bellows, a member of the organization’s board, who was exploring ways for students to contribute to that project. 

Internships are another way students gain essential hands-on experience. Anna Delapaz, as well as being the first official food studies major, was the first to acquire an internship with My Lucky Tummy, a community organization that promotes awareness of the refugee population in Syracuse through sharing different ethnic dishes at pop-up food courts. “I volunteered with My Lucky Tummy in my sophomore year at an event held that February, and that led to an internship,” Delapaz says. “It was so much fun, cooking side by side with people from all around the world. There were three chefs there, all speaking different languages. It was such an interesting learning experience that I could never have gotten anywhere else.”

Students have also taken a proactive approach, creating BrainFeeders, the first academic food studies student organization in the country. The idea for the group originated with its co-presidents and founders, Lindsay De May ’16 and Imelda Rodriguez ’16, when they took the Human Right to Food and Nutrition course with Bellows in 2014. “We felt we needed a club that addressed food beyond health and nutrition. We wanted to look at food access and sustainability on campus,” De May says. “The inspiration came from that class, where we were learning about implementing a human rights framework into a food system and figuring out what our role is to make food more accessible. It felt very natural to want to create a student club after that.”

The group has accomplished a lot in a short time, from completing the process for becoming a recognized student organization and establishing its identity, to recruiting members from across campus and getting several projects underway. Last fall, they brought a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program to campus for the first time, partnering with a Central New York farm to bring shares of fresh seasonal produce to more than 40 members of the SU community. BrainFeeders students also organized a weekly charter bus service from campus to the CNY Regional Market, and are now working with the campus sustainability committee and Food Services to find ways to bring more sustainable, local, and organic food to campus, including the establishment of a café with such offerings in Schine Student Center. “We’ve had amazing experiences with the group and have learned a lot,” Rodriguez says. “It’s been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done at SU.”

In May, De May and Rodriguez will receive their bachelor’s degrees from Falk College as two of the four members of the first graduating class in food studies. It’s an important milestone for them and for the new program they’ve helped shape and define by their presence and contributions here. “We’ve grown very quickly, and it’s been an exciting time for us and for our students,” Weissman says. He points to upcoming additions as the program flourishes, including a partnership with Syracuse University Abroad to offer classes in Florence starting next fall, and the development of a certificate of advanced study in food studies. “We’re a brand new program and still growing,” he says, “but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that very quickly Syracuse University is going to be recognized as the place to study food.” «



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Food studies professor Evan Weissman invites students to consider a variety of strategies to strengthen the food system so it’s more tuned to questions of social, public, and environmental health.

Photo by Steve Sartori



New Center Strengthens Nutrition Offerings

A longtime dream came true in September for Falk College nutrition faculty and students with the official opening of the Nutrition Assessment, Consultation, and Education (ACE) Center within the Falk Complex. Made possible by a visionary gift from Falk College alumna Rhoda Dearman Morrisroe ’69, the new center is a hands-on learning laboratory designed to prepare students with traditional and emerging professional competencies critical to effective nutrition practice. “The Nutrition ACE Center simulates the types of professional settings where its graduates will work, while providing ongoing, unique learning opportunities that give students a competitive advantage,” says Dean Diane Lyden Murphy.

The center comprises two lecture rooms, one with a media-ready demonstration kitchen and one with a teaching station; two private consultation rooms; a physical assessment room featuring the Bod Pod body composition testing system; and a conference room with media screen. The counseling and physical assessment rooms are equipped with two teaching mannequins, a tube feeding placement simulator, wall-mounted height-measuring devices and electronic scales, pediatric measuring equipment with several multiethnic infant mannequins, electronic blood pressure monitors, a lactation education baby, and a variety of food models.

The center’s counseling rooms allow students to practice nutrition consultation skills, while the demonstration kitchen supports the new integrative nutrition curriculum, which uses food as medicine to support disease treatment. “We already have many things to be proud of in the SU nutrition programs,” says nutrition professor Kay Stearns Bruening G’80. “Our students have above average placement rates in the required dietetic internships they must complete to obtain their practice credentials. And the pass rate for SU nutrition grads on the national credentialing exam is well above the national average. This new facility makes it possible for us to embrace and incorporate new initiatives being pursued by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, particularly around nutrition-focused physical examination and emerging areas in integrative and functional nutrition.”

According to Bruening, the Nutrition ACE Center also enhances research opportunities for faculty and student research at Falk. “The potential is tremendous, and with our current group of nutrition faculty with complementary interests, and our growing graduate program, the new facility and equipment can be put to use right away,” she says. “It also strengthens our position for collaborative and interdisciplinary research with health researchers at nearby universities and in the community.”

Bruening also points to a national initiative concerning inter-professional education—learning experiences designed to be completed by students from several health care disciplines working together. “With our new facility, we are well-positioned to reach out to health professions education programs in our area to design such learning experiences,” she says. “We’re very excited about and grateful for the new center, and what it means for the future of our nutrition programs.”



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As part of the activities marking the official opening of the Nutrition Assessment, Consultation, and Education (ACE) Center, students and invited guests participated in a lecture and cooking demonstration presented by Amanda Archibald, founder and owner of Field to Plate.

Photo by Steve Sartori



Food Studies Figures

Food Hubs

Since 2006-07, the number of regional food hubs—firms that aggregate local/regional food—throughout the United States has increased by 288 percent. *

Organic Sales

• Sale of organic products increased 72 percent from 2008 to 2014, from $3.2 billion to $5.5 billion, with growth occurring in every sector.*

Farm to School

• Between 2006 and 2012, there was a 430 percent increase in farm-to-school programs, with more than 4,000 school districts in the United States using locally sourced food in school meals.

• Farm to school programs now exist in more than four out of 10 school districts in the United States.*

Farmers’ Markets and CSA Programs

• In 2014, there were 8,268 farmers’ markets operating in the United States, up 180 percent since 2006.

• 64 percent of farmers’ markets reported increased customer traffic; 63 percent reported increases in their number of repeat customers and in their annual sales.

• According to 2012 data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 12,617 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement.*

 Gardening

• More than 42 million households in the United States (35 percent of all U.S. households) participated in food gardening in 2013, an increase of 17 percent in five years (source: www.garden.org).

• In 2008, there were eight million millennial food gardeners; in 2013, there were 13 million, an increase of 63 percent (source: www.garden.org).

• In Syracuse, the number of community gardens and urban farms has grown from three operating in 2007 to 23 in summer 2015 (source: www.syracusegrows.org). *

*Information provided by Evan Weissman. Source is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, except where otherwise indicated.



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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



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Food studies faculty and students traveled to the Food Systems Summit at the University of Vermont last June, an annual event drawing scholars, practitioners, and leaders to engage in dialogue on food systems issues. Pictured (from left) are Lindsay De May ’16, Professor Anne Bellows, and Will Cecio ’17.

Photos courtesy of Falk College, except where noted



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In her classes, food studies professor Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern challenges students to examine the food system, exploring problems and methods for improving it.

Photo by Susan Kahn



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