As a former professional chef in fine dining restaurants, Dr. Julia Wolfson (SPH) studies how food preparation, eating behaviors, and policy affect diet and health. Dr. Wolfson’s recent study about sodium in restaurant meals made headlines.
Julia Wolfson | Assistant Professor, School of Public Health
In what ways does your work relate to sustainable food systems?
My work focuses on both food outside the home (including neighborhoods, restaurants and other food environments), and inside the home, specifically home cooking. Through this lens, my research focuses on environmental, cultural, and social determinants of diet quality and health.
Recently, I have focused on the way people perceive the meaning of cooking, what it means to cook in today’s food system, and how we measure this kind of behavior. What we have found is that in the current food system the kind of food available on supermarket shelves impacts how people understand what it means to cook. When you ask people, “how often do you cook dinner?” the interpretation of that question varies considerably and, for many people includes highly processed convenience foods that are ubiquitous in the food environment. People point to home cooking as a way of inspiring dietary change, although for a lot of people not being able to cook or a lack of confidence in their cooking ability is a significant barrier to changing their diet. Consideration of cooking skills and behavior, in addition to structural issues around food access and affordability is important to make change in consumption behavior and creating a sustainable food system.
What is a project you are excited to work on?
I’m very excited about an upcoming project that will examine food preparation and procurement practices among low-income adults in Michigan who are pre-diabetic. This study will yield rich qualitative data about challenges people face in their daily food preparation and strategies they use to overcome such challenges. I am particularly excited about this because most research about cooking skills and behavior is based on self report, and in this study we will be directly observing participants cooking. Ultimately, this work will inform the development of targeted cooking skills interventions.
What does your grandiose vision for a more equitable, healthy and sustainable food system look like?
I hope that our society can enact policies to help to make healthy, sustainable, ethically produced foods, more affordable, accessible and desirable. Everyone should have access to kind of ‘good’ food, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they make. I envision the healthy, sustainable food choice the easiest choice to make. While this vision seems far away right now, just imagine if we had a food system that primarily produced food that is good for the environment, good for food system workers, good for the local economy, and was also good for the people who consume those foods!
For many people, food choices are based on taste preferences that begin in childhood and are developed over time. Given the daily burden of putting food on the table day in and day out for one’s self and one’s family, the need to prepare food (or not prepare it), is, for many, driven by whatever is the easiest, most affordable, and fastest options available. Smart food policies and widespread individual behavior change will both be needed to make a healthy, sustainable food system a reality.
“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain was hugely influential on me. I read it before I started working in restaurants, and thought to myself, “now that’s the life for me!” I read it again after working in the NYC restaurant scene for a few years and it really holds up! Now that I’ve been out of the restaurant business for a few years I really miss it sometimes. When I do, I watch Chef’s Table or Top Chef (my guilty pleasure food show). On a more serious note, I’m particularly looking forward to the upcoming book “Making Modern Meals” by Amy Trubek , who is a friend and colleague. The book has just been released and will discuss home cooking and its history in this country.
What is a strong food memory?
My parents were good cooks and cooked all the time. I recall my dad tormenting me by cooking ‘bunny’ (rabbit stew) during a phase when I refused to eat “cute” animals. My parents used make a simple roast chicken with roasted potatoes, lots of garlic, rosemary and pine nuts in a white wine sauce. Pinenut chicken, as we called it, was a frequent staple of our dinner table and I still make it to this day. Whenever I make it, I’m reminded of family meals from my childhood! It was simple, delicious, my parents made it well (and often), and everyone in my family loved it.
- US Food Policy and Public Health (HMP 617), Winter 2018
- In Winter 2019, there will be a new food system course for undergraduate public health majors
Check out the video recordings from this year’s tiny talks from 10 SFSI affiliated faculty on topics related to food and/or agriculture. From food addictions to urine fertilizer and everything in between, U-M leaders share their scholarship.
Thursday, October 19 from 6-8PM
Educational Conference Center (1840) in the UM School of Social Work Building
Light refreshments will be provided. RSVP to attend.
Jack Griffin, a graduate from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business with a Community Action and Social Change minor, is the founded of Food Finders, a web-based app that helps users find free food resources that are closest to their home, school, or current location.
Food Gatherers, an organization that works to alleviate hunger in the Ann Arbor community, distributes more than 1,000,000 pounds of food to 150 non-profits in the Ann Arbor area.
Annie Grech, a University of Michigan student pursuing a BS in Biochemistry, is the President of the University of Michigan chapter of the Food Recovery Network, an organization that works to fight food waste and hunger by recovering perishable food that would otherwise go to waste.
Naim Edwards works in the city of Detroit as an Environmental Specialist. Along many other forms of environmental activism, Naim works with Voices for Earth Justice to engage the local community at an urban garden.
A lover of fresh lychees and satellite imagery, Meha Jain is the fifth and most recent addition to the University’s Sustainable Food Systems cluster hire. Based at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, her innovative work uses satellite imagery to support smallholder farmers and to understand the decisions they make in the face of climate change and other resource stressors.
Meha Jain | Assistant Professor, School of Natural Resources
In what ways does your work relate to sustainable food systems? My work broadly tries to understand the impacts of environmental change and natural resource degradation on agricultural production and how farmers are responding and adapting to these changes. I seek to find ways to sustainably enhance production and incomes for farmers in smallholder systems that are being impacted by multiple shocks like climate change and natural resource degradation. My goal is to figure out ways to more efficiently use limited natural resources, to increase equity, and to sustain current levels of production.
What is your strongest food memory? I have strong memories of eating fresh lychees and mangos in India as a kid. My family moved from India to Canada, and every five years we would visit extended family and spend the summers in India. My grandfather and uncles are farmers in Northern India in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and I remember walking around the farm picking fresh mango and lychees. After coming back to Canada, I would try to find lychees and mangos in the grocery store and it was just not the same!
How has being a part of the sustainable food systems cluster hire impacted your first year on campus? Both personally and research-wise, it has been great to join an existing community of people who are interested in the same sorts of issues and questions. I’ve coordinated with Andrew Jones (Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health and part of the Sustainable Food Systems cluster hire) to understand factors influencing farmer nutrition in India and with Jennifer Blesh (Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment and also part of the cluster hire) to map changes in agricultural production in the US and link them to environmental impacts.
Tell us about your recent sustainable food system research. My lab takes a mixed methods approach where part of our work uses satellite data to map yield, crop type, and cropped area across large spatial and temporal scales. This is exciting because often times researchers and policymakers rely on coarse data available at the district and state scale. Satellite data allow us to develop the same data products but at a fine spatial scale. For example, my colleagues and I have mapped cropped area at a scale of 1×1 kilometer across India and mapped wheat yield at a scale of 30 meters across Northern India.
To complement the large scale agricultural production patterns from satellite date, my group and I conduct household surveys to understand the factors influencing farmer decisions. Specifically, we examine how farmers are perceiving and adapting to environmental change, like climate change and natural resource degradation.
What are some Ann Arbor, Detroit or University events, projects or organizations that you are excited about? FarmLogs is an innovative startup based in Ann Arbor that uses satellite imaging to improve farmer decision making, primarily on field to enhance agricultural production and yield. This technology assists farmers’ management decisions with information that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I think the work they are doing is very exciting and it dovetails into my work in India. Overall, we are both working with farmers to enhance sustainable food systems on the ground.