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.
Disability Justice for Detroit Farms and Gardens
Nov 16, 2017
UM Detroit Center
Join the UM Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and the Detroit Food Policy Council for a panel discussion on why and how Detroit farm and gardens should be inclusive and accessible to all.
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.
The 2017 Sustainable Food Systems Progress Report is here!
Chapter 1. Research and Teaching (Sustainable Food Systems Initiative)
Chapter 2. Student Leadership (UM Sustainable Food Program)
Chapter 3. UM Campus Farm
Chapter 4. Dining and Operations
Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Saru Jayaraman at the University of Michigan
Friday, Sept 15
Join actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin with workers’ rights advocate and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United Saru Jayaraman for a discussion on economic inequality in Michigan and nationwide.
Given their strong ties to Michigan, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are touring the state to call for higher wages and working and living conditions for working people statewide. After the speakers share their own experiences with the issue, they will share how Michiganders across the state can take action.
The event at the University of Michigan is free. Tickets are not required and doors open at 1pm. If you’d also like to join Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin for lunch, consider attending the event prior at Miss Kim! Details here
Thank you to the generous support from the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, the Ford School of Public Policy, the Nutritional Sciences department, the School for Environment and Sustainability, and Taubman College. Additional financial support for this event is provided by the CEW Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund.
The 4th annual “Fast Food for Thought” will bring together 10 interdisciplinary faculty members from across campus to give a series of fast-paced talks (5 minutes each) related to food and/or agriculture. Speaker information below and delicious reception to follow.
- Jake Allgeier, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“Fish Pee: An Asset for Improving Coastal Food Sustainability?”
- Alicia Cohen, Department of Family Medicine
“Food As Medicine: Increasing Access to Fruits and Vegetables in Low-Income Communities”
- Ashley Gearheardt, Psychology
“Can Food be Addictive?”
- Mary Carol Hunter, School for Environment and Sustainability
“Cultivating Aesthetics to Fertilize Urban Farming”
- Mark Hunter, School for Environment and Sustainability & Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“Monarch Butterflies, Herbicides, and our Food System”
- Greg Keoleian, School for Environment and Sustainability, Civil and Environmental Engineering
“Counting Calories and Carbon Emissions of your Diet”
- Steven Mankouche, Architecture
“Afterhouse Afterthoughts: Learning from Transforming the Foundations of a Derelict Home into a Semi-subterranean Passive Solar Greenhouse”
- Karen Peterson, School of Public Health
“Is Healthy Food Bad for Me?”
- Will Tarpeh,Civil and Environmental Engineering
“Pee-cycling: Creating Sustainable Fertilizer from Urine”
- John Vandermeer, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“The Agriculture Climate Change Connection”
With introductions from Catherine Badgley (EEB), Lilly Fink Shapiro (SEAS), Mariah Van Ermen (Policy), Alison Miller (SPH), Meha Jain (SEAS), Mark Wilson (EEB and SPH), Andrew Jones (SPH), Jennifer Blesh (SNRE), Lesli Hoey (UP), Monica Dus (MCDB), Maren Spolum (SEAS), Julia Wolfson (SPH), Ivette Perfecto (SEAS)
Reception by Chef Chris Chiapelli
This interdisciplinary event is made possible by our generous sponsors:
School for Environment and Sustainability, Department of Psychology, Residential College, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Taubman College, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Department of Family Medicine, Civil and Environmental Engineering