Foodie culture is spurring degree programs at US colleges

Before he ever knew they might be topics to study in college, food business and farming played an important part in Charlie James’ life.

At Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, he sold homemade rice balls and sushi to classmates and earned about $40 a day for a college fund. Then he was deeply affected by visiting his grandmother’s organic vegetable farm in Japan, learning about pesticide-free and locally grown produce.

This fall, James took a step closer to his career goal of helping to run and innovate urban farms and rooftop gardens. A business major at the University of California, Berkeley, he also enrolled in a newly established academic minor in food systems, a set of classes that include such topics as nutrition, the effect of climate change on agriculture, farm labor practices, food marketing, water resources and world hunger.

James is part of widening trend at American colleges and universities to channel students’ foodie passions into classrooms, labs and campus gardens. An estimated 30 U.S. colleges and universities have formal interdisciplinary food studies programs that offer degrees or minors. New ones opened this fall at UC Berkeley, the University of the Pacific and Syracuse University. Hundreds of other more traditional degrees in agriculture, nutrition and the environment are attracting new food-focused interest.

James’ program includes a hands-in-the-dirt internship at UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract Community Farm in nearby Albany. Recently, as he tied green bean plants to posts beneath netting, he recounted his family’s emphasis on fresh food.

“It’s ingrained in me that there is a lot of food out there that is harmful to people and the environment. I want to address that in my studies here and try to fix some of the injustices,” said James, 21. “A lot of people can’t afford organic food. I want to make it more accessible.”

More colleges are responding to those types of concerns. The current crop of college students swap restaurant tips, discuss gluten-free and paleo diets and post photos of vegan meals on social media with great frequency. Along with their interest in food, many also are committed to social justice and activism around issues of hunger, food safety and pollution, analysts say. Industry exposes in such books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan and “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, and films “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc.” are cited as significant influences.

Many college students are deeply involved in “what they eat and don’t eat” but in different ways than older gourmands only seeking fine dining, said professor Krishnendu Ray, president of the Association for the Study of Food and Society. Many students plan food-oriented careers, whether in start-ups, nonprofits or government, said Ray, who chairs the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, which has one of the nation’s oldest food studies master’s program and enrolls about 175 students.

Food culture is now “a legitimate” topic for scholarship, and schools use such programs to gain status and attract tuition-paying students, Ray said.

“Universities try to elbow into a crowded marketplace. They are seeking to do something new and make a mark in a field of knowledge not dominated by someone else,” he said.

The University of the Pacific, which has its main campus in Stockton, established its food studies master’s program in restaurant-obsessed San Francisco and enrolled 14 students this fall. Colleges are catching up to public interest in food, said program director Ken Albala, a historian. “You can talk about food from an intellectual standpoint and not just what tastes good.” he said. Courses include “food and literature” and “business of food.”