By Echo Martin
The systems that bring food to our tables are complex, and include everything from farming to consumption to recycling. While traditional horticultural and agronomic degrees study the plants that make up these systems, faculty members at the U of M saw a need for a degree that took a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach to food. In 2013 this led to the creation of the Food Systems major, which examines not just how to grow food, but how agricultural systems interact with the communities they serve and exist within.
The Food Systems major is unique. “Only a few universities in the United States offer a major like Food Systems,” says Tom Michaels, major coordinator. “It’s an emerging academic field, and is sought by both students and employers.” Every student begins with a broad understanding of food systems through standard courses such as An Introduction to the Food System: Analysis, Management and Design; Sustainability of Food Systems: A Life Cycle Perspective; and Plant Production Systems.
Students also select a track to gain expertise in at least one area related to food systems: organic and local food production, agroecology, consumers and markets, or an individualized program of study. “Tracks provide students the opportunity to match their particular area of interest within food systems with a coherent schedule of studies that emphasizes that area,” says Michaels. “For students with unique or very specialized interests, the individualized track lets them pursue their goals under the guidance of a faculty mentor.”
By learning discipline-specific tools in addition to their broad understanding, food systems students are better prepared to solve real-world problems. All students are also required to take a capstone course where they work with a community organization solving a problem they are currently facing. The projects selected for this course cover a wide array of topics such as food safety, community communications, growing methods, farm planning, and more.
Over 50 students have graduated from the major so far, and it continues to grow. Students have entered positions such as farmer’s market manager, post-harvest assistant, specialty food producer, crop consultant, Extension educator, and more. Students have appreciated the ability of the major to adapt to different situations they might encounter when they start looking for a job. One student commented in an anonymous exit survey, “I feel confident that I could apply my degree in many different ways, from my own business to large companies.” Other students have valued the added focus on social issues surrounding food and the involvement with the community. Students that leave the major start their careers well prepared with problem-solving capabilities to meet the challenges of a dynamic work place, and the companies they work for will ultimately benefit from their flexibility and breadth of knowledge.