Virginia Tech® home

Webinar Panel 2: How Do Other Food Studies Programs Work?

Loading player for

This was the second panel in "Learning from Experience: The Food Studies Program Directors Project," hosted by the Virginia Tech Food Studies Program, with the support of a Humanities Connections grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  It took place on October 21, 2021, and featured Megan Elias (Boston University) and Matthew Hoffman (University of Southern Maine).


Megan Elias, Director of the Gastronomy Program, Associate Professor, Boston University

Megan Elias | Learning from Experience: The Food Studies Program Directors Project
Megan Elias, Director of the Gastronomy Program, Associate Professor, Boston University

Matthew Hoffman, Assistant Professor, Food Studies Program, University of Southern Maine

Matthew Hoffman | Learning from Experience: The Food Studies Program Directors Project
Matthew Hoffman, Assistant Professor, Food Studies Program, University of Southern Maine


Our program started in 1991, offering an MLA, which is now an MA. Our founders were Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Rebecca Alssid, who was Director of Special Programs at Met College, the extension school of Boston University. Rebecca and Jacques Pepin had already initiated the Programs in Food and Wine, three years earlier to offer a culinary certificate. Together, the three decided to offer courses about food that approached it from an academic perspective—history and anthropology and literature—but it was important to keep the two approaches—hands-on and scholarship—together.  Jacques Pepin taught the first Gastronomy course, which was “Culture and Cuisine: Their Rapport in Civilization.” The program grew from Pepin’s course and a course on the Anthropology of food, drawing on existing courses at BU to fill out the curriculum.

We currently have about 90 students enrolled in the program. We offer an MA and a Certificate in Food Studies. Both can be completed in person or online and students are welcome to mix modes.

Being part of Met College has meant that we are well set up to serve working people and to provide an online degree and certificate programs. Because Met has been BU’s extension school, our courses are all at night and tuition is slightly lower than that at the rest of BU. Being part of BU has enabled us to benefit from the strengths of an R1 university. Our students can take classes from divisions across the university and also at the other institutions that are part of our Boston consortium.

In terms of dialogue with and fitting with other food-related programs on campus, we consider ourselves one unit with the Programs in Food & Wine. We share space, plan courses, and cross-promote each other’s events. We have a good relationship with the Sustainability Director for BU and with the Sustainability Director for BU Dining Services. For example, we participated in a food waste audit for BU Dining. The Programs in Food & Wine also partner with our university radio station, WBUR, on a series of live-audience interviews with chefs.

The University of Southern Maine Food Studies Program began in the mind of Economics faculty member Michael Hillard, with funding support from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund.

In 2015, Hillard, with the support of a consultant, Jo D. Saffeir, began reaching out to potential academic and community partners as they set about designing the USM food studies program.  Over the course of a year, they familiarized themselves with the needs of food systems actors in southern Maine; researched other food studies programs around the country; and developed a plan for how a food studies program at USM might serve the needs of students and the broader community. 

Based on the plan they created, the Maine Economic Improvement Fund committed more than 2 million dollars over a 4-year period to support a program with the following goals:

·         USM will graduate students with a solid academic understanding of global, national and local food systems, and with general professional skills essential to successful food-related work in the private, nonprofit and public sectors.

 ·         USM will create strong collaborations with the local food-based business, nonprofit and public sectors to support positive social, economic and environmental impact.

 ·         Maine residents and policymakers will understand and promote the interconnectedness of land and ocean-based food systems, with an emphasis on environmental and community sustainability.

 ·         Maine residents and policymakers will be aware of and understand the issues related to social and environmental justice in all aspects of food systems work, including food security.

These goals were based on a program vision that continues to guide us to this day:

·         Environmentally sustainable food production

 ·         Entrepreneurship and Economic Development that supports and helps to expand local, sustainable food production (including the bounty of the Gulf of Maine)

 ·         Supporting efforts to make the local and regional food systems to be socially responsible and just, including improved livelihoods in the food economy and ending food insecurity

 ·         Supporting research and educating incumbent and future workers in Maine’s food system, and food-oriented nonprofits and government agencies.

In 2016 the project team hired Kristin Reynolds, a NYC-based food systems scholar to consult on curriculum design, and by the spring of 2017, the nascent program was ready to hire two full-time faculty members—myself and Jamie Picardy—to launch the program in the fall of that year. 

In addition to the courses taught by Professor Picardy and myself, our course menu was filled with food-related offerings provided by faculty with affiliations throughout the university. 

One of the great strengths of the program has been the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds, experiences, and personal perspectives of participating faculty, who contribute through their teaching and their service on the Food Studies Council, which is the governing body for the Program.  I’ll talk more about the Program’s place in the University and its trajectory in a moment, but first let me introduce you to the main faculty members. 

Michael Hillard, whom I have already mentioned as the initial force behind the Program’s creation, is a popular economics professor who has been at USM for well over 30 years.  He served as the Food Studies Program Director for our first three years. 

Cheryl Laz, the current Program Director, has been a member of the project team from the beginning, also serving as chair of the Sociology Department for most of this time.  Prior to the founding of the Program, Prof. Laz was already teaching several food systems -related courses. 

As the two most senior faculty members on the Food Studies Council, Professors Hillard and Laz—each in their own way—provided essential support to Prof. Picardy and I, who, as new-comers to the University, would never have managed to navigate the administrative bureaucracy on our own. 

Another significant faculty member is Richard Bilodeau, whose presence on the council connects us to the School of Business and whose courses on food and entrepreneurship are of particular importance for many of our students.  Well-networked with both the University administration and the local business community, Prof. Bilodeau’s creative energy has also made him a valuable partner for Prof. Picardy in organizing student research and events on campus.     

Prof. Picardy and I are the two official Food Studies faculty members and until recently have shared primary responsibility for providing courses in the core curriculum, as well as for supervising students and carrying out community-engaged research. 

Professor Picardy came to USM from the Friedman School at Tufts University, where she earned her PhD in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program.  An award-winning educator, Prof. Picardy works with community stakeholders to integrate applied research into her courses, giving students the opportunity to understand the real-world importance of the subject matter and how they can make a difference.  Students in her classes typically present the results of their work to community partners and have also published in academic journals. 

I came to USM from the Centre for Rural Research in Trondheim, Norway and was previously a faculty member in the Food Studies Program at New York University.  I did my graduate training in rural community development at Cornell University.  I would be glad to talk about my classes, but I have been transitioning away from teaching and toward supervising groups of students on externally-funded research projects in partnership with local and regional organizations. 

You may not be surprised to hear that a significant portion of the teaching in our program has been taken on by a rotating cast of extremely knowledgeable and hard-working adjunct faculty.

Jess Gerrior, who has taken over my teaching responsibilities with conspicuous talent, is weeks away from finishing her PhD in environmental studies at Antioch University in Keene, NH, where she also works with, directs, or serves on the board of several regional food systems organizations. 

Lastly, I need to mention Amy Carrington, who played a crucial role in the program starting in early 2018.  In addition to providing skillful administrative support, she served as our Internship Coordinator – a position of central importance to student recruitment, community engagement, and faculty research.  Ms. Carrington’s years of experience with local and state-wide food systems organizations, as well as with farming, have given her the network connections, grant writing skills, and administrative abilities necessary to connect our students and faculty to the world off campus.  If there is one thing that other food studies programs should copy from USM, it is to create a role like this one and to find a similarly qualified person to fill it. 

At this point, I should backtrack and provide some basic information about the program.  The program itself is situated in the Department of Economics and Sociology, but functions somewhat like an independent department.  Our Director (currently Cheryl Laz) has a role similar to that of Department Chair and our Food Studies Council meetings are like department meetings.  All of the Council members, however – with the exception of Jamie Picardy and me – also have departmental affiliations and teaching responsibilities outside of Food Studies.

The Program consists of an undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate.

The undergraduate minor has been very popular and there are also many students who take Food Studies courses without completing the minor.  One way in which we have attracted non-minors to Food Studies courses is by cross-listing these courses with other programs, a practice that has proved to be a useful strategy for recruiting students into the minor, especially once they hear about the internship program (about which more shortly). 

The minor consists of 18 credits.  [Minor requirements linked HERE.]

The Food Studies Graduate Certificate makes an excellent complement to many graduate degree programs such as planning, policy, nutrition, or law.  It may also be pursued on its own as professional enhancement by people already working these or other professions, including hospitality or the non-profit sector. 

The Graduate Certificate is a 12 credit program.  [Grad cert requirements linked HERE.]

From the beginning, the Food Studies Program at USM has maintained a strong commitment to community engagement, which has been expressed through public events, student projects, and faculty collaboration with local partner organizations. 

In the early phases of planning the Program, Michael Hillard and Jo D. Saffeir met with numerous local stakeholders.  Perhaps chief among these in the beginning were the Good Shepherd Food Bank and Preble Street, an organization that seeks to address problems of homelessness, hunger, and poverty in the Portland area. 

Professor Hillard collaborated with these two organizations on a report called Hunger Pains, showing that food insecurity has increased 50% in Maine in the last 12 years, putting the state first in New England and 7th nationally – even as food insecurity for the nation as a whole has been in decline.  More than 200,000 Mainers suffer from food insecurity. 

For this reason, food insecurity was a major focus for the program in the first few years.  In March of 2019, we hosted a large conference – the annual Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit – with over 500 student and faculty attendees from all over the country.  At about the same time, we were becoming increasing aware of the high rate of food insecurity among students, both nationally and on our own campus.  We already had students interning at the Preble Street resource center, and that spring we began collaborating with them and the campus food pantry to improve outreach to students in need.  I’m glad to answer more questions about this later. 

Professor Picardy, as I have mentioned, has made it her regular practice to have students in her classes collaborate with community partners on research projects that are tailored to meet the partner’s needs, culminating in student presentations and reports with community members in attendance.  Both the students and the community partners have found this very valuable and Professor Picardy has been recognized for her excellence in service learning. 

My own classes have been less research-oriented and also less community-engaged, apart from having a large number of class visitors from local organizations.  My student-centered, community-engaged research has come more in the form of supervising groups of graduate research assistants and undergraduate interns on projects in cooperation with community partners.  I’d be happy to talk about these during the Q&A if there is time.

The most important thing to tell you about is the internship program, which serves the dual purpose of education and community engagement, and has proven extremely valuable to students and local organizations alike.  It has also been our best recruitment tool. 

The internship program is funded by the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, enabling us to pay interns $14 per hour while placing them with host organizations, businesses, or agencies in the state of Maine.  Internships are typically 150 hours per semester for 3 credits and can be completed either during the school year or over the summer.  We have had as many as 50 interns in one year working for a wide variety of public, private, and non-profit host sites. 

The internship is a highly structured learning opportunity in which students have both a host site supervisor and a faculty supervisor.  Before the internship begins, students work with their faculty supervisor to create a learning plan that includes goals, activities, and final products.  The interns meet as a group several times during the semester with the Internship Coordinator and at the end of the semester give an on-campus presentation to an audience of their peers, host site supervisors, and faculty members. 

Many students consider this the most valuable part of their food studies experience and it is not uncommon for interns to be offered a job at their internship host site after graduation.  

We define Gastronomy as examining the role of food in historical and contemporary societies from multiple perspectives including political, cultural, experiential and entrepreneurial. We take a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding what food can tell us about human life. We emphasize the importance of bringing together hands-on and scholarly learning about food by granting students credit towards their MA for experiential classes like the culinary arts lab, wine studies and cheese studies and integrating food studies scholarship into our culinary arts training. 

The Food Studies Program at USM takes a humanities approach, with emphasis on economic development, food justice, and the environment.  

We have two full-time faculty, one Associate Professor and one Senior Lecturer. Together we teach five of the courses offered each year. The remaining five to seven courses are taught by adjunct instructors, many of whom have taught in the program for more than ten years. When opportunities to hire new faculty for new courses occur, we emphasize inclusivity in hiring, curriculum and syllabi.

We work with the college’s marketing department and Enrollment Services to promote our program through advertising, webinars, and outreach. This has resulted in significant growth in enrollments and increased diversity in our student population.

We recruit students in every way we can think of. We work with our Enrollment Services department as well as our Marketing department to find ways to introduce our program to potential students. We frequently reach out to other departments at BU to co-sponsor events. We also staff a table at the BU Farmers’ market to advertise our upcoming lectures, courses, and the field itself.

We have an assessment program in which we review student portfolios against our stated program goals. We expect to be able to make needed program changes based on these reviews. In addition, we have begun conducting annual Diversity and Inclusion audits of our syllabi, curriculum, programming, admissions and hiring.  We also receive and review course evaluations each semester. 

This remains an open question, as we are only beginning our fifth year and Covid has of course complicated everything.  The biggest challenge that our Program faces is funding, since the generous grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, on which the Program was founded, ran out in June of 2021.  We had been hoping or expecting that the University would provide some level of funding to support the program, but that turned out not to be an option. 

The two major results of this loss of funding are that the Internship Coordinator position has been moved to the University Career and Employment Hub, where it has been combined with another position; and one of the faculty positions (mine) has been shifted to soft money.  This explains why I have shifted from teaching to supervising students on research projects. 

The Maine Economic Improvement Fund continues to support our internship program.  This is extremely useful to me because, by connecting interns with organizations with which I am partnering on a grant, the MEIF funding can be counted as a cash match – something that is required for the USDA grants that are currently supporting my position. 

When it comes to student recruitment, the fact that we have a minor, rather than a major, means that we are unlikely to attract students to the University on account of our Program – something that may factor into the University’s willingness or ability to provide support.  Most of our recruitment, in other words, is internal. 

The Graduate Certificate, on the other hand, does attract students and, so long as we have a critical mass of students and can maintain the course offerings, I strongly believe that the opportunity to combine a Graduate Certificate in Food Studies with such degree programs as business, law, nutrition, and especially policy and planning will attract graduate students to the University.   

Together with the Programs in Food & Wine, we have a history of providing our community with interesting events about food, featuring scholars and chefs, lectures, discussions and feasts. We have received internal and external grants to support research and events and we have worked with groups in our community on programming. We receive funding from the Pepin Family Foundation to support a lecture series and the Julia Child Foundation supports a student writing award every year. In addition we received a gift to establish the Gastronomy Fund, which supports students presenting at conferences, helps fund some student run-events and, when the pandemic recedes, will support a visiting scholar to work conduct research in our culinary collection.

I think this has mostly been answered above, but to summarize: course offerings, public programming, the internship program, and community engaged research make the Food Studies Program a valuable asset to both the campus and the broader community. 

Prof. Picardy’s class-based research has contributed to waste reduction on campus and to the increased use of local seafood in the cafeteria; Ms. Carrington and I have collaborated with campus and community partners in an effort to address student food insecurity; and a large number of student interns have worked with local and regional organizations on a wide variety of issues of concern to the community at large.  

Most recently, students in Gastronomy have won internal Boston University funding competitions to host events that bring together Food Studies themes and work on inclusion and equity. One was about the exclusive nature of wine studies and the other was about foraging and gentrification. These events were open to the public and well-attended by people from the BU community and beyond. It is very fulfilling to see our students imagine, propose, win funding for and enact these exciting conversations.

Our program’s most unique feature is the experiential element. Having an excellent culinary arts program as our sibling program enables our students to understand how deeply connected material and intellectual understanding of food are.

Follow us on Instagram! @gastronomyatbu Read our blog! Listen to our podcast!

Our largest program by far was hosting the annual Universities Fighting World Hunger summit, which attracted over 500 students, faculty, and nonprofit staff from all over the U.S., as well as other countries.  We have also hosted a variety of nationally-recognized speakers for public events.  All of the faculty attempt to tie such events to their courses when possible.  In the case of the hunger conference, a sizeable number of student interns were involved, at least one of which was offered a job afterward, based on her excellent performance in putting together locally-sourced meals.  It is also a common practice for faculty to invite guest speakers to their classes and, during the first three years, the Program made a certain amount of money available for this purpose.  I especially took advantage of this opportunity, bringing as many community food systems stakeholders as possible into the classroom, sometimes organizing panel discussions, and always on these occasions opening the doors to the wider campus community.   

I would like to invite people to ask me any questions they might have about the Food Studies Program at the University of Southern Maine and I will try my best to answer them.  You are welcome to reach out by email and in that case I can also put you in touch with other faculty members, including our Director and former Director, who may be able to do a better job answering certain questions.  I am also happy to share various printed materials, such as the menu of course offerings or my own syllabi.