Students led the charge for a new minor focused on sustainable food, eager for a fresh entry point into one of the massive issues of our day.
By Matt Nelson
April 1, 2015
“You really can’t quarrel with the relevance of food.”
So says Gregg Crane, the director of LSA’s Program in the Environment (PitE), which last fall launched a new minor in Sustainable Food Systems. That Crane is also an English professor specializing in American literary and intellectual history speaks to an idea at the very core of both the program and what has come to be called “the food minor.”
“The push of the minor is toward the interdisciplinary study of food and food issues in relation to the environment,” says Crane. “The food topic gets studied from the natural sciences side, social sciences side, and humanities side. And we built it because students asked us to.”
PitE already offers a minor in sustainability, but—jokes about students’ hunger for knowledge aside—part of the reason they were so interested in a food minor, Crane believes, is a matter of scale.
“The environmental crisis is so massive and so difficult that one response is to put your head in the sand and do nothing,” he explains. “But if I narrow the thing down to a very concrete topic like sustainable food production, I can get my head around that. Sustainability as a concept is useful, but as a topic of study, it’s just far too broad and amorphous to capture students’ interest in quite the way that I think concrete things like food do.”
Finding a narrower avenue through which to approach such a daunting topic hardly limits the impact students can have, however.
“One of the things I love about studying this,” says senior Meredith Witt, a PitE major on track to be one of the first to graduate with the new minor, “is that when you’re taking a food class, you’re talking about so many different issues.”
For example, Crane relates the story of how one student taught him that there is carbon trapped in the earth through organic processes that gets released simply through the act of tilling land, a standard agricultural practice. Exploring and promoting methods of no-till farming, then, could significantly lessen the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. And that’s just one way sustainable food is linked to sustainability on a grander scale.
Taking the Initiative
John Vandermeer (Ph.D. ’68), a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) who has been involved in research and teaching food-and agriculture-related topics for more than 40 years, stresses that link between food and the environment.
“In my opinion, there are two issues of the day,” he says. “One is climate change, and one is agriculture. And it’s not just that the climate is going to affect our agriculture in negative ways, which is true, but it’s also that the industrial agricultural system is contributing to the problem of climate change.”
Vandermeer is one of numerous professors from across the University who, with students, came together to form the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. The initiative looks to “learn from and build food systems that are health-promoting, economically viable, equitable, and ecologically sound.” In 2012, the provost’s office approved their proposal for a cluster hire on sustainable food systems, and four new faculty have since been added in EEB, the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and the School of Public Health.
“Three of the new hires are teaching a foundational course together that’s part of the minor, and it had a wait list,” says Ivette Perfecto, a professor in SNRE who also helped to form the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. “They got about 50 students in that course, and they had to turn people down.”
Perfecto points to a few reasons why she thinks there is so much interest in the topic now.
“Several things have happened,” she explains. “Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma really had a strong impact popularizing the interest in where your food comes from. Then writers like Mark Bittman in the New York Times and the food crisis in 2008 put the topic in the news in general. And then there’s the growth of urban agriculture in many cities, including Detroit—which is one of the main cities where we’re seeing a boom. Students are seeing that and getting interested.”
The demand for the food minor is only one testament to that awareness. A number of student groups have emerged in recent years at U-M, ranging from the thriving Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens to organizations like Michigan Bees. The activity and activism suggest a more holistic approach to healthy food that’s as much about “you are what you eat” as it is about “you reap what you sow.”
“The Campus Farm gives me the chance for hands-on projects and research,” says Witt, who after graduation is hoping to teach environmental education classes using school gardens as a resource. “For bio classes, you’re going to your bio lab. The Campus Farm, that’s the food lab.”
“Ivette and I talked for so many years about why we didn’t have a student garden at the University of Michigan and how we needed to start a student farm,” says Vandermeer. “Well, suddenly it happened, and we had nothing to do with it. We really have to acknowledge the student input on this whole thing. They’re doing an absolutely wonderful job.”
Photos by Sarah Schwimmer
Originally featured in the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine