Environmental Studies Program introduces food studies track

 A new track for environmental studies majors available starting next semester will focus on food systems and their relationship with the environment.

The Committee on Curricula for the Schools of Arts & Sciences and Engineering approved the new track in response to a growing interest among undergraduates in food systems and people’s relationships with food, according to Director of the Environmental Studies Program and Professor of Biology Colin Orians. The track was inspired by similar programs at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, including its Agriculture, Food and Environment (AFE) program, he said.

“I always felt that if I was going to be director of the Environmental [Studies] Program at Tufts then I should really design a program that took advantage of all of what Tufts has to offer,” Orians said. “Otherwise, I might as well just pretend we are just the Arts and Sciences at the Medford campus. We wanted to make the program fit across the entire school and feed on the strengths of the entire campus.”

The track will add to three existing tracks within the major – Environmental Science; Sustainability, Policy, and Equity and Environmental Communication – and will be the final addition to the program, Orians said.

Students must complete five courses for the new track, including one introductory course, one quantitative and research methods course and one course in each of three dimensions: Culture and History, Policy and Economics and Science and Nutrition, according to Orians.

Orians said the academic study of food has seen more interest because it is both an interdisciplinary and a relevant topic.

“It’s a topic that has interest in the social sciences and in the agricultural sciences,” he said. “It’s got some really basic science interest, it’s an interest of climate change, sustainability and climate justice,” he said. “It is just a topic that resonates with people in lots of different departments. I think that’s why it has traction.”

The new track will precede an upcoming cluster hire – the hiring of multiple tenure-track professors at once to teach in separate disciplines but within the same academic theme – by the School of Arts and Sciences to focus on specialties involving “food, science and society.” An unspecified number of professors will be hired in 2014 or 2015, Orians said.

A large variety of departments and programs, including the International Relations and Community Health Programs and the Departments of Psychology, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Economics and Biology, all submitted proposals suggesting that “Food, Science and Society” be the topic for the next cluster hire, Orians said. A&S deans will then decide which departments should start searching for new professors.

Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Julian Agyeman believes a cluster hire focusing on food would raise the profile of food and food studies at Tufts, solidify links with the Friedman School and encourage interdisciplinary research.

“[The new hires] can work together across the departments they are housed in,” he said. “It would be a way to both consolidate what we have and create synergies with what we have, as well as bring in new ideas.”
Although the Friedman School focuses more on the nutritional and scientific aspects of food, Agyeman said that the new track within the undergraduate environmental studies program will focus more on societal aspects. He plans to research the concept of food justice, or how to improve food access for all people in an increasingly diverse society.

According to Agyeman, increased interest in food is in part due to the attention food has received from popular figures such as First Lady Michelle Obama, authors Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan and celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver. Food is an important and relevant topic that should receive attention, he said.

“Everybody eats food. Food is an intimate commodity,” he said. “We talk about food. We are interested in what other people eat. Food is such a focal part of our lives, and it is a great place to start talking about what we are doing for the planet.”