Beginning this fall, UC Berkeley students interested in studying how the food system works can now obtain a minor in it.
“The study of food systems is a relatively new field,” said Kathryn De Master, assistant professor of agriculture, society and environment, who along with her colleague Alastair Iles, associate professor of environmental science, policy and management, are serving as the minor’s faculty advisors.
According to the food system minor’s website, the minor is:
“an interdisciplinary program of study that explores the role of food within the environment and society. Drawing from diverse fields as far ranging as ecology, sociology, the humanities, nutrition, history, and economics, the food systems minor critically examines issues of contemporary food and agriculture from a whole-systems perspective.”
“Majors and minors in food systems are pretty new study emphases, having become more popular in the last 10 or more years," said De Master.
According to research done by De Master and others, around 40 majors and minors in food systems exist at various universities around the country.
While Cal students initially began asking for a program like this about six years ago, it was shelved for several years.
Kate Kaplan, a recent graduate, along with Jeff Noven, served as student representatives on the founding committee this past year. “Our role was making sure the student perspective was always considered, so if the administration was wondering if certain classes should be core classes, we’d give our input as to whether it was rigorous enough,” a former manager of the SOGA (Student Organic Garden Association) said.
Kaplan majored in society and environment with a minor in conservation and resource studies. She designed it on her own, which many students do when there isn’t a program tailored to their exact interests, she said.
“I got a lot out of what I did, but I think the food systems minor fills a void,” she said. “People could have already studied it, but there was not a lot of direction. You’d be on your own to choose whatever classes, with no one to tell you what to take or whether you should take certain classes in succession. Having an actual food systems minor will give students a lot more direction and make it a lot more worthwhile.”
While the minor’s departmental home is within ESPM, or Environmental Science, Policy and Management, many other departments are contributing to it, De Master said. “That’s one reason it took so long to put it in place, we had to be sure to address the interests and concerns of all the different departments that have a stake in seeing how its implemented,” she said.
De Master added that there are some 70 to 80 faculty members – many of them also involved with the Berkeley Food Institute – whose classes could be considered part of the minor.
An important component to the minor will be a requirement that students get some hands-on experience by working with a local partner organization that’s doing work to change the food system. De Master didn’t want to name any in particular because they are still being vetted, but she said they are in the process of hiring a lecturer whose responsibility will be to oversee the internship component.
While De Master couldn’t predict how many students will immediately declare the minor, she said there had been a lot of enthusiasm for it thus far.
They could have as many as 50 students already, she estimated, and “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had 100 to 200 students within a few years,” she said.
When asked which majors would be a good fit with the new minor, De Master said there is a wide range. While environmental science is an obvious one, some lesser ones include public policy, community development, social work, nutritional science, urban planning, sociology or business, for someone interested in going into an agricultural start-up. “The food system minor cuts across many different disciplinary areas, and the way that a student emphasizes their program of study, which is very flexible, will help enhance their major,” she said.
While “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan’s presence in the journalism department at Cal has no doubt had an effect on students wanting to further study this issue, De Master said he is not on the food systems minor committee.
"Yes, he is one of the key players on the national stage who has invigorated our conversation about this issue and we’re indebted to him for that, but there are also quite a few professors and students on campus have been doing considerable research that is more broad, specific, and in-depth than his superb journalism about food systems,” said De Master, adding, “I think Michael would be one of the first to highlight that fact.”
While Kaplan has graduated, she said she hopes to have a hand in choosing the next student representatives to the minor, and given that she’s staying in the area, will want to know how things are progressing.
“It definitely was a long time coming, but it’s wonderful to be a part of it and I’m excited to see how it goes from here,” she said. “I’m excited to see how it grows as more students study it.”