Food Studies Starving for Professors

By Viviana Altamirano

Two Iowa State University professors gave lectures as candidates for a senior faculty position in the College’s burgeoning Food Studies program on March 18.

“We’re advertising for one position, but on the basis of this visit, we found a way to broaden the search to accommodate potentially two positions,” Vice President for Academic Affairs Tim Spears said. “We understand that this is an unusual and important enough search that we want to be accommodating to different sorts of applications.”

The lectures of Dr. Laura Merrick from the Department of Agronomy and Dr. Matthew Liebman, the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair in Sustainable Agriculture highlight the College’s intent to establish an integrated Food Studies program.

The Educational Affairs Committee has been working to establish a Food Studies minor since the fall of 2012. The committee then decided to hire a scientist who has expertise in the area of sustainable agriculture who could also help create the curriculum in Food Studies. While there are courses on Food Studies being taught, there is a lack of expertise in this area at the College.

“This will likely be a free-standing position and it won’t be officially tied to a particular department necessarily,” Spears said.

“We’re also conscious of the fact that the position will be closely tied to one or more of the science departments and  Environmental Studies. We want to think critically about where to physically and figuratively position the individual who will fill this position,” he added.

The interest for a Food Studies program has come from a number of different directions and reflects the varying academic disciplines that might eventually comprise the Food Studies program.

“One of the things that we’ve discovered about Food Studies is that the entryway into the study of food can come from a number of areas,” Spears said. “At this point we’re hiring a scientist, but there are other ways in which one could think about Food Studies. You can think about it from a geographical perspective, you can come at it from an economic point of view, and you can come at it from cultural or historical point of view.”

In response to growing interest in Food Studies, the College has also developed FoodWorks, “Middlebury’s signature internship program for students interested in local food and sustainable development.” FoodWorks places students in paid internships in Louisville, Kentucky and Vermont that focus on local food economy. Participants also engage in a curriculum that includes sustainable agriculture, nutrition, food security, culture, and traditions.

“There are educational outcomes built into the program, which provide a nice connection back to the curriculum we’re trying to develop,” Spears said. “When you work on agriculture, you’re already outside the classroom, literally, doing work out on the land, and there’s a natural bridge between laboratory classrooms and the world outside the classroom.”

Spears also noted that the College hopes to craft the Food Studies program in a way that maintains a global orientation.

“We have been identifying possibilities for students to study food abroad. That means going through our study abroad programs and seeing what kind of curricular opportunities there are at our partner institutions—institutions where Middlebury students are already studying, for students to study food, agriculture and other related subjects.”

The College is now a member of the Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium.

Spears indicated that the consortium comes together in order to help the local economy grow and to establish jobs in the Vermont agricultural economy.

“It’s very clearly focused on economic issues, but to get to those economic issues, this group is focusing on ways in which it can collaborate, and make use of their educational resources together, to do work together,” Spears said. “It’s a fascinating and exciting opportunity for all these Vermont colleges and universities to connect with one another.”

Spears noted that at the crux of the Food Studies program is a desire to balance growing interest in locally-sourced food with the necessity of feeding the hungry.

“There’s a tension between the desire to eat locally grown food, to grow food and vegetables in a particular kind of way, to pay attention to the environmental and political considerations … But there’s this other huge global issue, which has to do with trying to meet the [food and nutritional] needs of the world. That’s a challenge that I think Middlebury students need to learn more about. There are debates and such, but there ought to be space within our curriculum, venues on campus, where these kinds of issues can be discussed.”