Today, we will hear from Dr. Amy Trubek, Associate Professor of Nutrition & Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences discussing University of Vermont’s Food Systems program. This post is part of SAFN’s Food Anthropology Program series, which features an undergraduate or graduate food anthropology program in each post. If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate a food anthropology program for the series, please email the series coordinator, M. Ruth Dike.
Ruth Dike: When/how did the Food Systems program at the University of Vermont (UVM) begin?
Amy Trubek: The impetus for developing food systems programs came from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). We started with an undergraduate minor in 2008 which is now established with an average of 50-65 minors every year. We wanted to create a graduate program that looked at the intersection of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and extend the way that we understand food and agriculture from a systems point of view. So we wrote a proposal for a food systems graduate program. The program enrolled its first students in 2012 and we have had three years of an MS program and next year will be the first official year where we enroll both MS and PhD students.. We currently have enrolled 17 Master’s students and we have 9 that have completed the MS degree.
During this period, a group of new faculty were hired in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who had background in looking at food and agriculture from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives, but especially new faculty with a social science background. Eventually the interest in food systems extended beyond CALS and became part of a university-wide initiative to promote transdisciplinary research.
MRD: What is the focus of your program and its strengths?
AT: The focus of our program lies in asking students to think about the interdependency and the complexity of the contemporary food system. Also, we say that in order to really fully be able to analytically capture what happens in a food system, you have to use a transdisciplinary approach in terms of your conceptual framework and research questions and then use mixed methods in terms of the form, or the ways in which you do research. So, we’re very interested in imagining research in relation to food systems related problems and creating an engaged learning experience. We don’t tend to have students doing purely theoretically driven theses. We have students do work with philosophers, anthropologists, agro-ecologists and others and they might be doing a mix of theoretical analysis and empirical research. The underlying consistency is that we always want the research frame to be posing a question about what is happening in the food system and what might be able to make it a different food system in the future.
MRD: Great. I noticed you use transdisciplinary- is that different from interdisciplinary?
AT: So transdisciplinary research can be defined as when people work together and to come up with a sort of set of problems and research questions within those problems and in that process you’re not holding onto your disciplinary frame- you’re actually moving beyond discipline to work through an engaged process of inquiry. The inquiry is driven by the problem, rather than the disciplinary frame. There’s a theory that if you have an interdisciplinary research team, the anthropologist says, “Well I’m the anthropologist on the team and this is what I do.” Whereas if it’s a transdisciplinary research team, everyone is in the entire process together.
MRD: What roles does anthropology play in your program?
AT: We are actually sort of unusual here at the university having two anthropologists who focus on food, so there are two of us actively mentoring students. I also teach one of the required seminars for the Master’s and PhD students and we’ve also required a qualitative methods course. Also, I would say that in our graduate seminars we rely on an emergent open-ended research inquiry approach very similar to the discipline of anthropology. We want to think about understanding food and agriculture not solely from an individualistic frame or a market commodity frame.
MRD: Would you like to talk about why you decided to do both an undergraduate and graduate degree program?
AT: I think there’s a real consensus here at the University of Vermont that food systems is a very important framework for learning and doing for the future. There’s a commitment to do that idea of addressing the complexity by using systems thinking, of moving outside the box and arguing that it would help both the academy and people on the ground if we could become more sophisticated and complex thinkers around food from a systems point of view.
MRD: Could you talk a little bit more about what the systems point of view is?
AT: Well, you don’t want to bracket your thinking, or as is often said “stay in your silo.” So you don’t say, “I’m interested in consumption, and I’m just going to look at consumption and the meaning of rituals and food, from the point of view of what happens- consumption of food in a ritual. But instead, with systems think you are encouraged to say, “Wait a second, how does that food in that ritual somehow work in relation to other issues in the system such as the way that food is produced or the way that food is transformed?” “How might meaning be produced through the entire system?” So it’s pushing students and faculty to say, “Wait, am I being too simplistic, do I need to understand and incorporate other elements of the system if I’m going to try to make sense of the structure and meaning of this ritual.”
What I see in my own research collaborations is that systems thinking moves me beyond the way that I was trained in anthropology to become a broader and more flexible thinker. It’s been an interesting process for me to increasingly work on mixed methods projects and to really see the benefit of understanding what a larger scale quantitatively-based study might do for capturing some elements of the problem that I’m trying to look at. I’m doing a transdisciplinary project with a number of people from food science and nutrition and anthropology. We’re looking at a concept of food agency where we’re trying to capture how people become empowered to act in relation to meal preparation. I really see the benefits of embarking on both a fine-grained qualitative interview and observation approach but also working on developing a scale of food agency. I think there are things that we can do with the large scale that will both elaborate upon and extend anything that I could do if I just did it as a qualitative project. I think that’s the type of thing that really happens when you take a systems approach.
MRD: It’s more holistic- you get a broader point of view. Do most students attend the program full time or part time?
AT: For the Master’s program you can choose and we have about 20% part-time students but the PhD will be a full-time program. But we’re definitely moving the design of the program such that you could do it part time and where you wouldn’t always have to be resident here, sort of a hybrid. But it’s going to take a while to move it in that direction. That’ll probably happen over the next 5 years.
MRD: Are any courses being offered online right now?
AT: Yes, Food Systems & Public Health is offered online. We are also going to have an on-line graduate certificate in agro-ecology that students can pursue as part of the Master’s or PhD probably starting next year. It will be almost all online with maybe one or two intense small residency courses.
MRD: How would you describe the diversity of the students in your program?
AT: We definitely have disciplinary diversity with students coming from disciplines as far afield as anthropology, animal science, engineering, and music. We also have both traditional students and returning professional students. In terms of ethnic and racial diversity of the makeup of the student, we track Vermont, which is not typically diverse but we do have Latino students and one international student now.
MRD: What ties do you have to the local Vermont community?
AT: We have a number of different ways in which we have ties to the local community. At the undergraduate level, we have the food systems internship program. So you can get internships with different organizations in the area working in food, agriculture and/or food systems change. In the graduate program we have a required applications seminar for the Master’s program and it’s optional for the PhD. The seminar is a service-learning class and every year the students work through issues with a community partner on a project rooted in an issue of Vermont’s food system. In Vermont, we have a universal composting law that’s starting in about a year. So last year students worked with the Solid Waste Management District and the Natural Resources state-level department on social media campaigns and other issues regarding the most effective way to reach consumers. This year students will work on a project with the Vermont Land Trust on persistent multigenerational issues relating to land tenure in the state. One of the great benefits of living in a small rural state like Vermont is that there is a lot of interaction between the university and the community because it’s a small place and everybody knows each other.
MRD: Is the applications seminar the same as the immersion credit?
AT: So the travel immersion experience is a separate thing for Master’s students where students are to have some kind of immersion experience where they’re in an environment where they’re looking at or thinking about the food systems from the view of a particular environment. It can be a class and we’ve had a class that is called Milk to Maple, which is Vermont’s food system and that’s been a travel immersion class all around the state. We have something called the Break Through Leaders class which is a class where people from all over the United States and the world come together and it’s a credit and non-credit course where they have experiences exploring Vermont’s food system and developing leadership skills. This year we’re starting a travel immersion graduate class on food and migration in Mexico and in Vermont. They’re going to experience both what the food system is like in Mexico and examine the fluid dynamic migration system between Mexico and the United States, not just of people but also of foods. The requirement can also be fulfilled through an immersion internship experience.
MRD: How much is tuition for your program? Are there scholarship or fellowship opportunities?
AT: For the Master’s program it’s a 32-credit program and it will cost approximately $45,000 for out-of-state tuition and about $20-25,000 for in-state tuition. We have a limited number of fellowships for the Master’s program and we will have assistantships for the PhD program because we’re going to fund all of the students we accept into the PhD program. We believe in fully funding for four years, if you come in with a Master’s. If you don’t come in with a Master’s we will try to fund you for the full time, which will probably be around 5 years.
MRD: What’s the length of the PhD program?
AT: It’s going to be a 3 to 5 year PhD program depending if you come into the program with a Master’s and what you study. If you’re not going somewhere else to do research, it’s going to be a different experience.
MRD: That makes a lot of sense. How many fellowships are there available for the Master’s students?
AT: It’s variable but we do have a particular fellowship called the Food Systems Innovation Fellows Program. Two fellowships will be awarded per year and these Fellows will do work with UVM Dining to do a series of goals and indicators for creating a sustainable and local dining program at UVM. We use the Real Food Challenge but we’re also adding other indicators for saying what we think a dining program should be like at UVM. It’s a part time one-year fellowship, including a 10-hour a week stipend and approximately 9 credits.
MRD: Is the 32-credits for the Master’s program a 1-year program or a 2-year program?
AT: You can do our program in 12 months. Most people are going to do it in 18 months. Basically you can do it starting September 1st and be done by September 1st or you can do it September 1st and be done by December 15th. It’s really like a 12-16 month program depending on whether or not you decide to take classes during the summer.
MRD: What sets your program apart from other food studies or anthropology programs?
AT: I think it’s really the fact that we’re really trying to bridge between natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We try to get students to become competent thinkers and doers around the food system, giving them the intellectual and practical skills that will allow them to successfully navigate. We also have tremendous engagement with the food system and food systems players in Vermont, so you can really learn a lot by being here.
MRD: What do your graduates go on to do after the program?
AT: We just started so we’ve only had a couple years of students but we have somebody working at the USDA as an agronomist, someone working at the Vermont Department of Agriculture, another working the Health Policy Institute that’s trying to integrate food systems work into health policy issues. We have somebody working at a newspaper, a couple of people working at non-profit organizations that are doing food and food-related work, and somebody is a sustainability manager for an institutional dining vendor. They have been able to access lots of different types of jobs.
MRD: That’s great. Do you mostly see your future PhD graduates as more applied anthropologists or scholars rather than just as pure academics?
AT: Yes, I think that our PhD will be robust and rigorous and you could get an academic job from it, but it will be a mix in terms of transdisciplinary approach and disciplinary specificity so it will look a certain way for a graduate.
MRD: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
AT: I think it’s a really exciting and emerging field, ripe with possibility. Although it is never easy to build new ways of thinking and doing about the world, the time seems right for bringing together the last century of disciplinary based inquiry and integrating the best ideas, methods and precepts in new ways for the 21st century, both in the academy but also beyond.