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Webinar Panel 1: How Do Other Food Studies Programs Work?

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This was the first 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 8, 2021, and featured Alice Julier (Chatham University) and Daniel Bender (University of Toronto). SEE DISCUSSION BELOW


Alice Julier, Professor, Food Studies Director, Chatham University

Alice Julier | Learning from Experience: The Food Studies Program Directors Project
Alice Julier, Professor, Food Studies Director, Chatham University

Daniel Bender, Director of the Culinaria Research Centre, University of Toronto

Daniel Bender | Learning from Experience: The Food Studies Program Directors Project
Daniel Bender, Director of the Culinaria Research Centre, University of Toronto


Chatham University was a small women’s college in Pittsburgh that transformed into a university with graduate programs, its main claim to fame being that it is the alma mater of Rachel Carson. In 2009, they were gifted a 400 acre property north of the city, which was a former country house, working farm, and retreat center for an executive from the Heinz Corporation – women who worked in the pickle factory would come to Eden Hall, as it was called, to rest, play, and escape the industrialized city.   When Chatham acquired it, they decided to create a School of Sustainability and the Environment at the site and the first program to be launched was Food Studies.  I was hired to design the program and be its first director and I spent about six months exploring and traveling to other programs  -- beyond the ones I knew from my relationship with the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) – especially those with student-centered farms and a liberal arts focus.    

The Culinaria Research Centre was founded officially in 2015, with roots that stretched back a couple of more years. Ours is a research centre that supports an undergraduate minor programme in food studies and a graduate Collaborative Specialization in Food Studies (a specialization attached to a range of disciplinary programmes offered by other graduate units). Faculty in the Centre also deliver a PhD programme in food history in the Graduate Department of History.

Culinaria, as a research centre, does not hold academic lines (faculty are appointed to departments and then join Culinaria as affiliates). We currently have around 30 faculty affiliates on all three (undergraduate) campuses of the University of Toronto. (All UofT faculty (tenure stream) hold dual appointments: to an undergraduate unit which depends on which undergraduate campus, and to a unitary graduate department.)

I serve as the Director of Culinaria and have held that position since its founding.

The program was designed to provide a holistic and applied approach to a multi-disciplinary field that was still in the early stages of its existence: The website says we “emphasize a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table.” We wanted the approaches to history and culture that seemed central to Food Studies, but also the applied, experiential knowledge of the culinary and agricultural fields.  In addition, we emphasized the community component of food systems, seeing how food insecurity, inequality, economic opportunity, and cultural meaning are all realized at the regional and local level. Social justice and equity issues are embedded in courses rather than treated as separate subject matter.  For example, food systems is taught as a series of narratives about how people in social and historical groups sustained themselves: some of those narratives include colonialism, capitalism, diasporic experiences, and more. 

Our web blurb says it well: “The Culinaria Research Centre is the hub for Food Studies at the University of Toronto that blends research excellence with community engagement and student research experience. Our projects provide new insights into some of the major questions circulating in the field of Food Studies today, including the place of food in cultural identity and expression; the relationship between food, diaspora, and inter-ethnic/inter-cultural contact in Canada and beyond; commodity production and labour, from slavery to the age of empire to the present-day; and the links between food systems, health, gender, and family.”


So, in 2010, we launched the Masters’ in Food Studies (MAFS) with a first cohort of 28 people and have had cohorts of 15-30 students every year since.  In 2015, we added a dual degree MAFS/ MBA.  In 2021, we decided to finally start a Bachelors in Food Studies (BAFS) and a minor (although the Bachelors in Sustainability has had a food systems track for a while).  These  programs are still small, with the average course have an enrollment being between 14-20 people.

The MA program core curriculum includes:

·      Food Systems (Equity)

•      Food Access (Sovereignty)

•      Agroecology (Applied Pedagogy)

•      Sustainable Gastronomy (Practice)

•      Research Methods (Critical Thinking)

•      Thesis

•      Internship


The BA program includes:

·         Food systems

·         Food policy and access

·         Agroecology

·         International Cuisine

·         Global Food Cultures (history)

·         Nutrition and Basic Food Science

·         Business Basics and Project Management

·         Other applied classes like Tree Care, Aquaculture, Horticulture, and Soil Science.

·         A junior year immersive program in Sustainable Production from Agriculture to Culinary, along with depth in Community and Nutrition.

·         An internship and a capstone project

Content areas in both programs include: Writing and communication; Markets, business, and entrepreneurship; Equity and social justice; Labor; Policy, politics, and community; Pedagogy and curriculum development; Agricultural and culinary practice in historical context.

Tough question! Insofar as we do not hold budget lines (faculty are paid by disciplinary departments: sociology, history, etc.), faculty commitment is voluntary. We have a solid core of faculty who are deeply involved and we share teaching responsibilities for the graduate programme. (Those at the Scarborough campus (UTSC), teach in the minor programme in food studies.) Community is at the heart of it all. Our faculty are an extraordinary group of people. They are productive, but, above all, collaborative, smart, enjoyable, and many other nice things. Recruiting students is less difficult. By now, there are just so many amazing students (grad and undergrad) who want training in food studies. The key question, for me, is identifying career pathways. Are we giving them employable training?

We place a strong emphasis on learning-by-doing and experiential learning – for the graduate program, this includes courses that span both applied and subject overview, like Dairy, Sustainable Meat, Grains, Fermentation; Wines, Cider, Mead, Urban Agriculture, Tree Care, and Aquaculture. We also try to teach a range of methods.

The staffing of the program is tight: there are five full time faculty (as of 2016) in the department and many affiliated faculty in programs such as: Sustainability, English, Business,  Biology, Environmental Science, Occupational Therapy, and Exercise Science.  We have only a few adjuncts who have taught with us, many of whom have been there for over eight years in writing, GIS, soil science, and food science.   The agriculture on campus is staffed by a farm manager and on and off, a director of sustainable agriculture who is also faculty (one retired and it took us a number of years to be granted a replacement).  We are in the process of hiring a director of culinary and food production.  CRAFT, the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation, has four full time staff members, who support students through research and outreach projects but also teach one class per year. 

Not a tough question! Toronto is North America’s second-largest food employment/business hub and most of the businesses are small-scale, often family. Scarborough, the part of the city where the Centre (and its kitchen) are physically housed, is one of the largest migrant and refugee destinations in the world and has a quite substantial Indigenous population. All the key ideas that food studies stresses about health, identity, politics, and justice are expressed, debated, and brilliantly articulated by and in nearby communities. Community-based, community-supportive teaching, learning, and research is central to what we do. We maintain dozens of partnerships with local organizations, mostly BIPOC led, focused on issues from healthy school lunches to community agriculture to food security to women’s food employment. In fact, in just a few weeks, a community organization called CaterToronto and Culinaria are opening a new community “food learning and innovation place,” a food hall, incubator, and education centre funded and built for our use by the City of Toronto. On campus, it is fair to say that while we still often confront the “food is fun” or “teach paragraphs not pizza” nonsense, food is increasingly noted. After all, UTSC has begun a massive campaign of edible campus planting focused on native foods and based on Indigenous food knowledges and has started a 10-acre campus farm. One of the big challenges, it is fair to say, is how to build a centre and a programme that can encompass approaches from food culture to agro-ecology. As yet…unsolved. 

Community engagement is a big part of Falk programs but we have made the deliberate decision to focus on depth rather than breadth of partnerships – so we have worked consistently and across programs with the Oasis Bible Center, which is a predominantly Black community group with an urban farm, aquaculture, community café, and youth training programs, all of which are connected to various people and courses in the Falk school.  We also work with a number of workforce development organizations (share culinary training classes with them and grants), farms (one of our faculty members facilitates a biointensive market garden research group with 10 farms, most of which are urban or run by farmers from underrepresented groups). CRAFT has a ton of examples on its website of its local and national partnerships, including regional grain alliances, food hub feasibility studies, and more. 

Beyond the community-based approach, our public events series is very important. We’ve held almost 200 events in the last five years and often look to co-sponsor with other units, organizations, etc. We find that untraditional formats tend to excite more than ‘book tour talks’ (for example). We often give visitors the chance to run an additional session in our kitchen. The kitchen is an essential place for us for teaching, research, community engagement, eating together, gathering — everything. Our connections to publishing (the Culinaria book series at University of Toronto Press, Gastronomica, and Global Food History) are vital as well, not least for the opportunities they provide to grad students. Finally, the postdoctoral programme is a pillar of the Centre. Every year, they bring fresh energy and new ideas.