Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Food Systems – Sustainable Food Systems Initiative

Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Food Systems

The graduate certificate in Sustainable Food Systems is one focus area of the graduate certificate in Sustainability. The Sustainability graduate certificate provides the knowledge, skill sets, and credentials relevant to sustainability.  Graduates will be better positioned to take advantage of new opportunities in the emerging global green economy and to compete for a wide range of positions in the private for-profit, public, and non-profit sectors.  

Certificate Requirements
The certificate is designed to accommodate the diverse skill sets and disciplinary backgrounds of potential applicants, yet provide sufficient structure to deliver a cohesive learning experience.  The certificate requires completion of:

  • 6 credits of coursework in fundamental knowledge
  • 6 credits of coursework in skill development.  
  • A capstone experience that allows students to apply the knowledge and skills they developed through their coursework.  The capstone may take the form of an additional 3-credit course or an approved co-curricular experiential activity.

A. Sustainability knowledge fundamentals (6 credits required)
NRE 501.038.* (3 credits) Foundations of Sustainable Food Systems
*alternate course titles: NRE 501-038/NUTR 555/URP 427/URP 527
One of the following:
EEB 498 (3 credits) Ecology of Agroecosystems
NRE 553 (3 credits)  Diverse Farming Systems in Theory and Practice
EAS 639 URP 610 (2 credits) Food Literacy for All (and optional 1 credit discussion seminar)

U.S. Food Policy & Global Health, HMP617 (3 credits)

Julia Wolfson. This course uses the social ecological framework as a vehicle to explore the different factors that influence the way we eat. We will examine different policy and public health approaches to address problems stemming from the modern US food system within the context of the social/cultural factors that surround food.

B. Skill Set Development (6 credits required)
URP 528 (3 credits) Food Systems Planning
SPH 633 (3 credits) Evaluation of Global Nutrition Programs
NRE 501.038 (3 credits) Agroecosystem Management: Nutrient Cycles and Soil Fertility


C. Experiential Learning Capstone Experience (3 credit equivalent)
Internship with any of the following*:
UM Campus Farm
Washtenaw Food Policy Council
Washtenaw Food Hub
Growing Hope
*These internships have been provided as examples only. Please speak with the certificate coordinator or member of the certificate committee designated by the coordinator, prior to engaging in the experience.

The capstone experience may be in the form of an approved 3-credit elective course, or an approved activity not associated with an official course. Current non-credit opportunities include participation in the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program, Sustainability Without Borders, Blue Lab, Planet Blue, the Campus Farm, sustainability-related internships, or other approved experiential activity.  As examples, experiential activities could take the form of an intensive international project trip, volunteering at a community organization over the course of a semester, or helping to design and implement a Planet Blue campaign. Given the range of possible activities, experiential activities that are not taken for course credit are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  The suitability of experiences that also fulfill requirements for a graduate degree, such as a required project, departmental capstone course, or research project, are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  Capstone experiences must have a distinct sustainability-related focus and should be approved in advance of the activity.

Each student must obtain a faculty advisor for the certificate program who is knowledgeable in the student’s proposed focus area.  The role of the advisor will be to assist the student in selecting appropriate coursework relevant to the proposed focus area.  

If you have questions about the graduate certificate please contact Dr. Jennifer Blesh (

Application Information

Students already enrolled in a Rackham or non-Rackham graduate degree program must complete at least one term before applying.
Fall Deadline: February 1
Winter Deadline: October 1

Applications must include:

  • Identification of the student’s proposed focus-area
  • Identification of a faculty advisor for the certificate
  • A proposed schedule of coursework
  • Identification of any courses expected to be double-counted with degree requirements
  • A brief statement (~500 words) describing the focus area of study along with the relationship of the proposed courses and how they will adequately prepare the student for the practice of sustainability principles
  • A brief description of the intended capstone experience.  If the student has not identified an appropriate capstone experience at the time of application, this portion of the application may be deferred for later approval.

Complete Rackham’s dual degree election form prior to graduation, and submit to Registrar’s at both programs. Apply for graduation of certificate program through Wolverine Access, similarly as one applies for graduation of degree program.

Use the following codes when completing your application:

  • Program of Application: Sustainability
  • Numeric Code: 02132
  • Plan (Subplan): 9140CGR
  • Program Level: Certificate

Information for certificate students

  • The student must have a minimum cumulative grade point average of B (3.0 on a 4.0 point scale) in courses for the certificate program.
  • Only graduate level courses may be used to meet certificate requirements; no transfer credit or undergraduate courses may be applied. All credits must be completed on the home campus, i.e., the campus on which the degree program is administered.
  • Not more than one-sixth of the credits required for a master’s degree can be double-counted with a certificate.
  • Not more than half of the credits necessary for the certificate can be double-counted with a Master’s degree.
  • No double-counting is permitted for students seeking a dual degree
  • No double-counting is permitted for free-standing certificate programs
  • Students cannot double count credits with any other graduate certificate programs.

Capstone Experience Approval:

  • The capstone experience must be pre-approved by the certificate coordinator or member of the certificate committee designated by the coordinator, prior to engaging in the experience.
  • It is not necessary to complete all coursework prior to engaging in the capstone experience.
  • For non-coursework activities, the student must identify an appropriate supervisor who will certify completion of the capstone experience
  • At the completion of the capstone experience, the student must submit a short statement (~1000 words) describing how the capstone experience integrated the coursework pertaining to knowledge fundamentals and skill set development in the practice of sustainability.

Course Descriptions

✦Offered in Fall Term
✹Offered in Winter Term

A. Sustainability Knowledge Fundamentals

✦NRE 501.038.* Foundations of Sustainable Food Systems

Jennifer Blesh, Lesli Hoey, Andrew Jones. 3 credits. This course will offer a unique opportunity for students to gain interdisciplinary knowledge of food systems and to integrate theory and practice through experiential learning and dialogue-based inquiry both on campus and in the community. Interdisciplinary research and education require bridging worldviews and recognizing the values implicit in different disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. This course will incorporate multiple perspectives, from the local to the global level, and an understanding of how those perspectives are underpinned by different epistemologies and value systems. That is, this course aims to directly engage with values, exploring how they shape food systems. Benefitting from collaborative interdisciplinary instruction that draws on the expertise of three professors from three different departments at the University of Michigan, students will develop competencies and cognitive skills in the area of food system sustainability including critical and systems thinking, creativity and analytical ability.

*alternate course titles: ENVIRON 462-011/NRE 501-038/NUTR 555/URP 427/URP 527

✦EEB 498. Ecology of Agroecosystems

3 credits. John Vandermeer. An analysis of ecological principles as they apply to agricultural ecosystems, emphasizing theoretical aspects but also covering empirical results of critical experiments. While the emphasis is on principles, practical applicability is also explored where appropriate. Physical, biological, and social forces are integrated as necessary. Designed as preparation for active research in agroecosystem ecology.

✦NRE 553. Diverse Farming Systems in Theory and Practice

3 credits. Ivette Perfecto. In this interdisciplinary course, we will critically explore an intersecting literature on agroecology, biodiversity, ecosystem services, diversified farming systems, agroforestry, and farmer’s livelihoods. The first part of the course will focus on the application of ecological theory to the study of diverse farming systems including intercropping and agroforestry. The second part will emphasize biodiversity both in terms of how agricultural landscapes affect biodiversity and how biodiversity contributes to the sustainability, productivity and resilience of agroecosystems and farming communities. The third part of the course will focus on management aspects of agroforestry and diverse farming systems. Finally, the last part covers some of the most salient social issues in diverse farming systems, such as tree and land tenure and gender issues as well as the rural social movements that promote diverse farming systems and agroecology. Prerequisite: General ecology course.

B. Skill Set Development

URP 528. Food Systems Planning

3 credits. Lesli Hoey. This course introduces ways of understanding, analyzing and shaping food systems. We will examine historical and contemporary trends in food systems from environment, socio-political, health and economic-perspectives. Emphasis is on the role of planners in facilitating food systems change through an exploration of food planning and the analysis of tools, policies, grassroots movements, and governance strategies emerging in the US and globally.

NUTR 633. Evaluation of Global Nutrition Programs

3 credits. Andrew Jones. This course will provide students with a basic understanding of the principles of program evaluation with an emphasis on global public health nutrition programs implemented in the Global South aimed at addressing a wide range of health and nutrition problems primarily arising from economic disparities. The course will create a space for discussion and practice in which knowledge can be applied to current global health issues through research and critical analysis. Course lectures and readings will give special attention to global nutrition programs.

NRE 501.038. Agroecosystem Management: Nutrient Cycles and Soil Fertility

3 credits. Jennifer Blesh. Global food systems have dramatically altered biogeochemical cycles, contributing to climate change and eutrophication of waterways. Growing concern about agriculture’s environmental impacts is increasing demand for citizens, scientists, and policymakers who have in-depth knowledge of more sustainable agroecosystem management approaches. We will focus on how management impacts carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycles from soil-plant to global scales. The course links theory and practice, and domestic and international examples, to discuss the complex challenges of sustainable food production, with an emphasis on applying ecological principles to soil fertility management. Students will develop skills using this knowledge in applied settings.

Sustainable Food Related Courses

The alternate courses listed below may be approved given adequate justification.  For courses not on the pre-approved list, the program coordinator or designated member(s) of the certificate committee will evaluate and approve course selection.

NRE 430. Soil Ecology

3 credits. Don Zak. This course centers on the overlap of soil science and ecology.  Our goal is to understand: (1) how the interactions of landform, topography, climate, and biota influence the development and distribution of soils; (2) how physical, chemical and biological properties of soils affect water and nutrient availability to plants; and (3) how nutrients are cycled within terrestrial ecosystems and how these processes are influenced by human activities.

HMP 617. US Food Policy and Public Health

3 credits. Julia Wolfson.
This course uses the social ecological framework as a vehicle to explore the many different factors that influence the way we eat. We will examine different policy and public health approaches to address a variety of problems stemming from the modern US food system within the context of the social/cultural factors that surround food. This course places a strong emphasis on discussion, and requires active participation in class activities. We will discuss complex questions about how government has responded to diet related health problems, the appropriate role for government in efforts to facilitate healthy eating, and how to develop and evaluate policy approaches to help people eat better and improve health.

RCNSCI 300.001 Alternative Futures in the Michigan Food System

3 credits. Catherine Badgley.  This course is an inquiry-based analysis of alternative futures in the Michigan food system. Starting with a foundation of ecological principles of food production, we will compare industrial methods with small-scale, ecological practices, and the policies that support them. We will focus on livestock production, which is controversial because of its resource intensity, environmental impacts, low standards of animal welfare, and health impacts. Students will develop research projects on the theme of alternative futures for livestock production in Michigan. Scientific goals of the course include acquiring a foundation of ecological knowledge; developing a research question and framing it in terms of hypotheses, predictions, and required data; gathering and analyzing data; testing predictions and hypotheses; and presenting findings in oral and written reports. Students should have a background in college-level environmental science or ecology; a prior course on food systems is useful but not necessary. The course includes mandatory field trips on three Saturdays.

NRE 501.007. Sustainable Aquaculture

2 credits. Jim Diana. More sustainable seafood production focuses on the current ecological systems used to produce seafood and methods to evaluate, analyze, and make changes to these systems to enhance sustainability.   In the course we will analyze fisheries and aquaculture, our current means of producing seafood for human consumption, from the perspectives of history, sustainability, future supplies and demands, management, and their contribution to human welfare. Sustainable seafood is a hot topic currently, with interests ranging from groups like Monterey Bay Aquarium ranking which products are safe to eat from a sustainability perspective, to analyses in Science and Nature indicating the demise coming for wild fish stocks and the oceans as we know them. We will focus on particularly on the role of aquaculture in seafood production, and ways to evaluate different systems in terms of sustainability.  This focus is due to the high likelihood that aquaculture can expand to help fulfill future seafood demand, while fisheries are believed to be at or even above a sustainable level of production.

NRE 501.031. Urban Agriculture

2 Credits. Mary Carol Hunter. Growing food in the city is an expanding practice in communities with and without food security.  Heralded by some as a viable and sustainable supplement to conventional food systems, urban agriculture has many challenges to implementation.  We will explore the motivations, benefits and difficulties of farming in the city itself.  The focus will be on temperate North American cities with special emphasis on Detroit and other northern cities that must contend with the limitations of winter weather.  To balance current theory with practical application, we will read and discuss a selection of scholarly papers and organizational reports.  Guest speakers, local leaders deeply involved with urban agriculture in the region, will offer their insights on practical aspects of implementation.

✹NRE 639.114. Future Scenarios for Global Food Security

1 credit. William Currie. Food security includes the availability and nutritional value of food, in relation to the needs of the population, in a particular region or throughout the global food system.  It is an inherently futures-oriented concept.  It tries to anticipate or forecast future developments and interactions among a complex array of drivers, policies, and food system responses that cross disciplines.  Drivers include population growth, climate change, changes in wealth and diets, energy and water availability, droughts, and crop failures; future technological changes include hybrid crops and genetically modified crops; and future policy levers include investments in agricultural research, crop subsidies, smallholder farmer support, road construction, and food export restrictions from producer nations in times of scarcity. Scenario planning, or scenario analysis, comprises a broad-ranging set of tools used in policy planning and analysis, strategic planning for business, and in the study of regional change and regional or global sustainability.  In scenario analysis, the future is not considered as a single, predictable trajectory of events or outcomes, but as a range of alternative futures.  Methodologies of scenario analysis can involve expert development of storylines or narratives, interactive stakeholder exercises, as well as modeling and simulation of alternative futures.

NUTR 510: Nutrition in the Life Cycle

3 credits. Olivia Anderson. In this course, you will learn about nutrition during critical stages of the life cycle from the time individuals are in the womb during pregnancy to when they become older adults. The nutritional needs for normal growth and development, as well as the consequences of under- or over-nutrition at critical life stages and what major interventions have been implemented to address these consequences will be examined. We will also discuss how lifestyle factors and demographics play a role in meeting nutritional requirements at various life stages.

✦NUTR 547. Food Science

2 credits. Susan Aaronson. An examination of food composition and the chemical and physical changes that result from food processing, preparation and cooking. Discussion of foods as complex systems containing a wide variety of chemicals including nutrients, phytochemicals, functional ingredients, natural or transferred toxins and additives. Discussion of changes in chemicals with different types of food preservation. Consideration of health risks associated with dietary exposure to selected nutrients and other chemicals. Exploration of the role of sensory analysis related to food acceptance. Overview of important regulations related to the content of food products. Prerequisite: Organic Chemistry

NUTR 622. Food Systems and Human Nutrition

2 credits. Andrew Jones. Food systems are immensely important for human nutrition and well-being, not only by providing for the nutritional needs of populations, but also by supporting the livelihoods of millions, especially the poor who often depend primarily on agriculture and food systems for both sustenance and income. Yet, human nutrition is an input into as well as an outcome of food systems; the nutritional status of those engaged in food systems directly affects their productivity and overall capacity to work, which then influences the efficiency of food systems. Food systems and human nutrition are therefore integrally linked. This seminar course will provide a forum for students interested in exploring current research that examines the intersection of food systems and nutrition in global contexts. Suggested prior coursework: NUTR 555. Foundations of Sustainable Food Systems.

NUTR 641. Community Nutrition

3 credits. This course is a discussion of the principles and programs developed to improve the dietary intake and the nutritional status of individuals and groups within a community. Primary topics covered include: government and nongovernment nutrition-related programs, groups at nutritional risk, nutritional issues/concerns across the lifecycle, and an introduction to developing community-based nutrition intervention programs (needs assessment, intervention, and evaluation). Didactic lectures and guest presentations accompanied with an in-depth needs assessment and intervention project and a community service-learning component will provide students the opportunity to integrate and apply knowledge through a hands-on approach. Prerequisite: EHS 630, Graduate Student in Public Health

Art & Design 300.012/500.34. Sustainable Food System Design

Joe Trumpey. This course explores a wide variety of contemporary and historic food systems at several scales including conventional, organic, and permaculture. Weekly site visits include trips to a dairy farm, a beef operation, a small permaculture farm, a CSA, a farmers market, a community farm in Detroit, the MSU student farm, and a slaughterhouse. Students will read and present work from a range of contemporary farm / food literature and will work on completing a series of original designs. Early designs will be on assigned topics and a final design project is self-directed. Graduate students and non-A&D students will need overrides to register. Enrollment is limited to 25 students.

✦NRE501.002 Decoding Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: The Global Politics of Agriculture and Biotechnology

3 credits. Aniket Aga. Genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops are the subject of fierce, transnational controversies. Nearly every aspect of them is contested – from their role in “feeding the world” to their impacts on yield, environment, political economy of farm and food, regulatory and policy-making institutions, and peoples’ notions of choice and ethics. A widely prevalent perspective on these controversies holds that scientific questions of safety/ecological impact surrounding GM crops are *relatively* settled; politics inheres in the political economic arrangements through which they are introduced in different societies. Contractual and pricing agreements that bind farmers from freely cultivating and exchanging seeds (e.g. Monsanto Canada Inc v. Schmeiser), intellectual property rights and patents over seeds (e.g. biopiracy), whether we ought to genetically modify at all (e.g. Jeremy Rifkin’s playing God thesis), and labeling rules lie on the terrain of politics. On the terrain of science, there is an overwhelming consensus on safety and efficacy, as 107 Nobel Laureates have recently declared.

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