Food studies program established by USM community

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By: Sam Margolin, Staff Writer

This January at USM, a new program will be offered as a minor for undergraduate students. The Food Studies Program was created after consultants Professor Michael Hillard from the Economics department, Jo D. Saffeir, and Professor Cheryl Laz from the Sociology department created a proposal to be presented to the board of the Maine Economic Improvement Fund. The proposal received a $1.8 million, three-year award in May 2016 to begin the program.    

The curriculum is based on understanding food systems and food cultures. Other aspects of the degree include emphasizing and understanding issues of sustainability and social justice in the food systems. Hillard’s goals include answering the question of how corporate food systems tend to undermine theses issues and how to resolve them.

“Students in the minor will get an overview course, two classes called Food, Power, and Social Justice, and Food and the Environment,” Hillard said.

The focus of these classes is on one of three tracks: Social Justice Policy and Advocacy, Entrepreneurship, or Tourism and Hospitality. The Food Studies Program will also offer graduate courses that focus on food systems and food policy, and hunger and poverty,  causes that are not being addressed in other areas of study. Programs like these help students see the bigger picture when it comes to what is on their plate. Everyone in the world could benefit from more education centered on better food practices and ideologies.

The Food Studies Program is not only an academic endeavor because it will also work closely with a large number of community partners on public policy, educational programming, and placing interns. Hillard is hopeful about the progress that has been made so far.

“In our first year, a group of seven graduate students and I collaborated with the Maine Hunger Initiative and Good Shepherd Food Bank on a large survey of food pantry users to document the state of hunger in Maine,” Hillard said.

The product of that research was a report, Hunger Pains, published in February 2017. Other research into the structural causes of poverty and hunger produced a series called  “Closing Maine’s Hunger Gap” in Fall 2017. About 300 USM and community members attended this series and will follow up in March with a policy conference on food insecurity in Maine. All of these events include and involve students who are “being the change” to make Maine a better place as it addresses hunger issues.

One of the best aspects of Food Studies lies in its internship program. There, students have access to well funded real world experience with community partners. Students will be paid $14 an hour in their internships, a step above most of the job opportunities available to college students. Not only do these incentives build the program’s popularity, “They build the skills and connections to gain employment post graduation,” Hillard said.  

Our food system connects with every aspect of our world, including politics and health, the environment and the social economics of the world.  In Maine and the U.S., the food sector has become larger than manufacturing and defines our lives as individuals and a society. Hillard, along with other food studies advocates, know that the key to a better future lies with young people who are passionate about transforming the food systems to make all of our lives better. With this new program, USM offers the courses, programs, and community opportunities to put these views into practice.

“Think of it this way, in 20 years places like Florida and California that produce most of our food will likely either run out of water, or be under water, and we will have to produce most of the food we consume locally,” Hillard said.

Hillard goes on to highlight the world’s need for policy and entrepreneurship to train students to build our future local, sustainable and socially-just food systems. Michael Hillard and the Food Studies program have positioned USM well to help make this new world possible. Without a proper food system in place, our world will continue down the path of overconsumption and reckless moral abandonment that causes us to misuse and take for granted the very creations in this world that sustain and feed us.

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