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Los Angeles Is A Food Haven. And It's Becoming A Haven For Food Studies

An illustration in which a scientist communicates with peers during a video call on her laptop. A microscope, a book, an orange, and a pen are also on her desk.
A handful of local public and private universities, including, Occidental College and UCLA, now offer the minor.
(Courtesy of UCLA )
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Early on in her undergraduate career, Emily Xing got a flyer for an informational meeting on food studies, one of more than 100 minors at UCLA.

Xing is pre-med, a molecular, cell and developmental biology major working toward becoming an ophthalmologist. But her interest was piqued.

“I mean, who can say no to food, right?”

Fast forward to 2022 and Xing, who’s now a third year, is officially a food studies minor.

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Food used to be a “simple, daily necessity or treat,” Xing said. Now she thinks about food on “a global scale, about how it connects to health and inequality.” When she first moved to Los Angeles from Beijing, she was shocked to come across $1 hamburgers, which seemed unusually cheap. Now she’s connecting the dots, using terms such as “government subsidies” and “global supply chain” to explain costs.

Since its launch in 2016, food studies at UCLA continues to grow in popularity, offering courses that inspire reverie, such as “The Poetics of Soul Food” and “Chocolate in the Americas.” Plus, students get to try out recipes in the campus teaching kitchen, and a recent $13.5 million gift will help kick off a chef-in-residence program at the university's new Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies this spring.

How Food Helps Students Connect To What's Around Them

Make no mistake: food studies minors are engaged in rigorous coursework. In “The Poetics of Soul Food,” for instance, students explore questions such as: “What kind of hunger is soul food meant to satisfy? How does soul food relate to a history of slavery, discrimination, and poverty experienced by generations of Black Americans?” In “Chocolate in the Americas,” students examine “the blissful and darker sides of cacao,” including its culinary use, medicinal qualities and socioeconomic aspects including labor, fair trade, poverty and exploitation.

James Bassett, a lecturer at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, teaches “Food Studies & Food Justice in Los Angeles,” a favorite among undergraduates. Bassett said via email that the course tries to help students develop a critical awareness of key food justice issues. They also learn about food deserts throughout Los Angeles County.

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The course, Bassett said, “points out that elements of food justice may be absent virtually anywhere in the city. Note [South L.A. gardener] Ron Finley’s challenges to legally grow food in front of his own house, or the difficulty of locating healthful cultural food — like nopales or poi — in many parts of the city.”

“On the subject of food security,” he added, “most grocery stores hold about a three-day supply of food, so in the event of a disruption, the entire city is, arguably, a food desert.”

Celebrating Food For Its History, Culture And Chemistry

So, do food studies minors become killjoys who peck at their peers with what they know over lunch?

Far from it, said Dana Gillis, who took Bassett’s course last spring. “My friends, parents — anyone I meet, really — seem to think it's really cool and interesting,” she said. “They want to hear what I'm learning about.”

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Gillis, a fourth year philosophy major and food studies minor, cited the opportunity to examine food from many perspectives as the latter’s main pull factor. “Food connects to everything,” she said, “whether it’s history, culture, chemistry or economics.”

You just can't study food consumption without thinking about who's doing the consuming.
— Adriana Galván, Dean of Undergraduate Education, UCLA

Faculty at UCLA hope students will take what they learn to help tackle global challenges once they graduate, such as how to sustainably feed an estimated eight billion people by 2025. In some students’ lives, the minor has already made an impact.

Xing has taken what she’s learned beyond labs and lecture halls. She composts regularly and volunteers at local farmers markets and community gardens. Learning about urban agriculture also inspired her to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables on her balcony. And she thinks a lot about how she’ll integrate food studies into her health profession — in a conversation with LAist, for example, she discussed the therapeutic influences of plants in hospital recovery rooms.

Career Paths For A Better Generation Of Dieticians

Food studies programs are growing more common in Southern California. Aside from UCLA, a few local public and private universities also offer a minor, including Cal State Fullerton, San Diego State and Occidental College. And USC has a food concentration in its journalism master's program.

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"It's applicable to so many potential career paths," said April Bullock, a liberal studies and environmental studies professor who coordinates the food studies program at Cal State Fullerton. In her view, students majoring in business, social sciences, the humanities and hospitality all stand to benefit.

“It's still kind of difficult to make it visible,” said Bullock.“Because there's no department behind it, students don't always find us.”

For now, most students in the program are public health majors interested in learning about the social and cultural aspects of food, a notable feat given that many professionals in the dietician and nutritionist fields often lack cultural intelligence.

The university also has a partnership with Monkey Business Cafe, which provides job training for people who’ve been in the foster care system. This helped entice students from other fields, like child development.

The number of students pulled in from different fields exemplifies what administrators find exciting about the program.

“It’s inherently interdisciplinary,” said UCLA Dean of Undergraduate Education Adriana Galván. “You just can't study food consumption without thinking about who's doing the consuming and how do we eliminate food waste.”

Some universities, including the New School in New York City, offer bachelor’s degrees in food studies. At New York University, students can even earn master’s and doctoral degrees in the field. At UCLA, a similar move might be in store. “We're very interested in this becoming a major,” Galván said. “Food is at the heart of human existence and survival, and we're excited to see this minor exposing students to how they can match what they're learning in the classroom to the real world.”

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