From farm to classroom: Occidental offers new food studies minor

Katie Hines (sophomore) speaks about her decision to explore the new food studies minor in conjunction with her Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) major in the Mary Clapp Norton Library at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Annie Dolan/The Occidental.

While looking through course counts deciding which classes to take this semester, students may have noticed a new minor: food studies. The creation of the food studies minor has been in the works for over a decade, pioneered by sociology professor and current food studies department chair John Lang. Lang noticed a growing interest in his longtime passion of food studies across disciplines and saw potential to organize the courses into a new minor.

“Professor Kasunic in the music department was starting that year, and he ran up to me and said ‘You’re the food guy right? Can you tell me why restaurants are so loud?’ and I was like ‘Hi, good to meet you — and you know what, that’s a fun question, I don’t know.’ That set off a handful of things. What it really led to in my mind is that we could collaborate across disciplines to study food,” Lang said.

In 2011, Lang consulted members of the food studies community from institutions such as University of California, Davis and Williams College who have experience devising food studies programs on college campuses. According to Lang, their biggest piece of advice was to make sure there was community interest.

“The reality is, when it comes to shaping our curriculum here, it is what our faculty are interested in teaching and what our students are interested in taking. What do we already teach and can we get those things to go together so students can get a minor?” said Lang.

Cognitive science professor and department chair Carmel Levitan co-taught a year-long Cultural Studies Program (CSP) titled “Culture of Foods” with Lang and music department chair David Kasunic, where they combined looking at food from humanities and science perspectives.

“We did some surveys and a lot of people were interested. There are a lot of people already taking these classes, so the way I think of the food studies minor is as a way to help students organize their classes and kind of raise awareness of all the food-related classes across many different departments,” Levitan said.

Food studies as a discipline is a popular topic to teach right now: articles in the New York Times and the Atlantic have discussed the rise of food studies programs. Occidental has been engaging with aspects of food studies before this trend, particularly through the Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) department in regards to food justice and on-campus initiatives like the Food, Energy and Sustainability team (FEAST) garden, according to Lang.

Katie Hines (sophomore) is one of the first round of students to pursue the food studies minor since its creation.

Sharon Cech came to Hines’ UEP 101 class last semester as a guest speaker on food justice. Cech currently directs the CA Farm to School, Farm to WIC and Regional Food Systems Programs at UEPI. Hines found the topic very engaging and when Cech mentioned there would be a new food studies minor available, Hines said she was immediately interested.

“I ended up taking a class with her right now about food and the environment, and then I became even more interested,” Hines said.

The food studies minor emphasizes interdisciplinary study, according to Levitan. The idea is you can look at food as an issue across multiple disciplinary lenses and do what Occidental asks as a whole — think as a liberal arts student and use that broad frame to work through difficult problems.

“A UEP student who has taken a lot of food-related classes might not think to take a Kinesiology class, that might not be a place in the catalog they usually look, but by grouping them in this way it is really saying, ‘Welcome, come here, check this out, this is for you too,’” Levitan said. “Similarly, in the reverse for students in Kinesiology, they might say, ‘Oh, UEP, I hadn’t thought about that side of food.’”

According to Lang, the jobs available for food studies are off the charts in California — there are more jobs than there are people to apply. We tend to forget that agriculture is an important aspect of California’s economy and that the number of people who are capable of thinking through complex food issues and have an interest in it are tremendous, Lang said.

“Oxy students are going to remix the stuff and combine things in new ways. People who minor in this might go on to be artists or scientists or social scientists. They could be writers and they might open a restaurant. Maybe they will put something on the ballot. Food is just everywhere, it is going to intersect with anything you can think of,” Levitan said. “Oxy students are amazing, so they will do things I won’t even think of.”

The food studies minor launches the same semester as the opening of the Oxy Arts building on York Boulevard, which is hosting “Breaking Bread,” an exploration into the inclusive culture of food and how it transcends the conventional system of power. Professor Lang hopes people will come to him and others involved in the food studies minor with ideas, because although the minor has been in the works for ten years, classes have just begun.