When professor Jennifer Otten stands in front of her first classes this Fall, she’ll see a student in every seat and know that the names of dozens more fill a waiting list. Each of the undergraduate courses she teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle have more than doubled since she started teaching them three years ago, outgrowing lecture halls and even attracting the attention of graduate students hoping to sit in.
What exactly is luring so many students to Otten’s classes? Is she offering an easy A?
On the contrary, the courses in question have names like “Food Studies: Harvest to Health” and “U.S. Food and Nutrition Policy,” niche subjects that would have attracted a much smaller and more specialized student population just a few years ago. These days, though, UW undergrads from every major flock to the university’s ever-expanding slate of food courses—often with little knowledge of the topic, says Otten. “I have really high attendance, which is unusual for an undergraduate class,” she says, adding that the students are also often more willing to participate than usual.
This surge of interest in food as an academic subject extends beyond the classroom at UW. Students at the university volunteer with food justice groups, support campus farms, and some even live together in new “food exploration” dorms. Otten attributes all this, in part, to the school’s location in food-progressive Seattle. But it’s happening everywhere—from the coasts to small college towns and everywhere in between.
A few recent examples showcase the growth of food-related courses in higher education:
- Marylhurst College in Portland, Oregon recently added a Master of Science in Food Systems and Society, which “focuses specifically on root causes of social inequality through the lens of the food system,” according to program coordinator Emily Burruel.
- According to the Berkeley Food Institute, the University of California-Berkeley is now home to 80 food and agriculture courses, including a brand-new undergraduate minor in Food Systems.
- A few years ago, a design project in a food class at Stanford University set the stage for student Matt Rothe to launch FEED Collaborative—“a program in design thinking and food system innovation and impact.”
- Emory University’s Peggy Barlett has introduced several food courses with titles like “Anthropology of Coffee and Chocolate” and “Fast Food/Slow Food.”
- At Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, brand-new degree programs in Culinary Arts and Sustainable Brewing require that students take an “Introduction to Sustainable Food Systems” course, which was over-enrolled this Fall.
- Both the University of Michigan and the University of Vermont have established university-wide, trans-disciplinary programs in food systems.
- After developing the first Ph.D in the anthropology of food in 2007, Indiana University reports an upswing in the addition of and interest in food-related courses, and food was even a university-wide focus for the Spring semester.
- Through its FoodBetter challenge, deans at Harvard College last Fall put out a call to all students to come up with ideas for improving the health, social, and environmental outcomes of the food system worldwide, resulting in a year-long focus on food issues throughout the Ivy League institution.
- Tufts University has added an online certificate program in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, catering to a crush of interest from professionals working in the food system, says instructor Jennifer Obadia.
- New York University has seen applications for enrollment in its Master of Arts in Food Studies increase from 80 in 2005 to around 170 today, and the university has increased its food and nutrition offerings from 30 classes a decade ago to 60 today.
More than 70 community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities now have specific degree programs for sustainable agriculture or food systems. This growth in interest on college campuses nationwide comes at a time when interest in food—and specifically local, sustainable food—is fomenting in popular culture at large, says pioneer food systems educator Dr. Molly Anderson of Middlebury College in Vermont.