Last year’s divisive political season left many Americans feeling like it is hopeless to discuss the local implications of national issues with people who have different opinions than them. Even on a largely progressive college campus like the University of Oregon’s, these topics can be difficult to discuss candidly. But the UO food studies program uses food as a way to talk about issues of sustainability, class and race. The program embraces the idea that food can spur important conversations because food encompasses economics, science and culture. Ultimately, everyone needs to eat.
The program began in 2013 as a specialization for graduate students, but as of fall 2016, undergraduates can earn a minor in food studies.
Students in the 24-credit undergraduate minor and the 18-credit graduate specialization take electives like Civic Agriculture, Gender Issues in Nutritional Anthropology and Soil Science. The program also centers around hands-on work and community engagement, encouraging students to learn and work at the UO Urban Farm.
Kassandra Hishida graduated from UO in 2017 with her masters in environmental studies and the food studies specialization. She grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley where industrial agriculture is omnipresent. It made her interested in farmworker justice. She wanted to learn how our food system could become more sustainable for people and the environment.
“I started learning about how many farm workers in the area where I am from were facing food insecurity,” Hishida said. “It didn’t make sense to me that the people who do all the work in food production had trouble feeding themselves and their families. The very people who have the cultural and historical knowledge to make our food system more sustainable are being prevented from getting the economic and political resources to do so.”
Hishida found that in her food studies classes students were pushed to have conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise. People were discussing the hidden consequences of the food they ate every day.
Both Hishida and one of the undergraduate students she worked with, Justin Knowles, who finished his geography major with the food studies minor, realized those often uncomfortable conversations were the first step toward change.
“As I was building a relationship closer to food, I would start to talk about it more outside of class with my friends too,” Knowles said. “I brought up issues that wouldn’t normally be on a busy college student’s mind. The conversations led to more informed decision-making for myself and people around me.”
Knowles grew pessimistic in the environmental studies department constantly learning about environmental problems, which is why he switched his major to geography. He was eager to focus on solutions. The food studies program showed him that talking about these complex issues is the first step to finding those solutions.
Emily Jenkins, who also graduated from UO in spring 2017 became involved in the UO Environmental Leadership Program through her food studies minor. The program — which partners students with nonprofits, government agencies and businesses to address local environmental issues — showed Jenkins how she could make a difference with youth food education.
“Learning about issues in our food system seemed like a daunting task, but I felt really empowered by seeing kids learn about sustainable food production and consumption,” Jenkins said.
She questioned whether or not she even wanted to attend college and instead pursue her childhood dream of becoming a pastry chef. Now she’s trying to take her skills as a food educator to her hometown of Seaside, Oregon. Like others from the university’s food studies program, she has experience in starting conversations about complex issues.
If university programs, like the UO food studies program, prioritize training people to initiate difficult conversations, the country might be able to avoid such divisive political seasons in the future.