Before he ever knew they might be topics to study in college, food business and farming played an important part in Charlie James' life.
At Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, he sold home-made rice balls and sushi to classmates and earned about $40 a day for a college fund. Then he was deeply affected by visiting his grandmother's organic vegetable farm in Japan, learning about pesticide-free and locally-grown produce.
This fall, James took a step closer to his career goal of helping to run and innovate urban farms and rooftop gardens. A business major at UC Berkeley, he also enrolled in a newly established academic minor in food systems, a set of classes that include such topics as nutrition, the effect of climate change on agriculture, farm labor practices, food marketing, water resources and world hunger.
James is part of widening trend at American colleges and universities to channel students' foodie passions into classrooms, labs and campus gardens. An estimated 30 U.S. colleges and universities have formal interdisciplinary food studies programs that offer degrees or minors. New ones opened this fall at UC Berkeley, the University of the Pacific and Syracuse University. Hundreds of other more traditional degrees in agriculture, nutrition and the environment are attracting new food-focused interest.
James' program includes a hands-in-the-dirt internship at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract Community Farm in nearby Albany. Recently, as he tied green bean plants to posts beneath netting, he recounted his family's emphasis on fresh food.
"It's ingrained in me that there is a lot of food out there that is harmful to people and the environment. I want to address that in my studies here and try to fix some of the injustices," said James, 21. "A lot of people can't afford organic food. I want to make it more accessible."
More colleges are responding to those types of concerns. The current crop of college students swap restaurant tips, discuss gluten-free and paleo diets and post photos of vegan meals on social media with great frequency. Along with their interest in food, many also are committed to social justice and activism around issues of hunger, food safety and pollution, analysts say. Industry exposes in such books as "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan and "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, and films "Super Size Me" and "Food, Inc." are cited as significant influences.
Many college students are deeply involved in "what they eat and don't eat" but in different ways than older gourmands only seeking fine dining, said professor Krishnendu Ray, president of the Assn. for the Study of Food and Society. Many students plan food-oriented careers, whether in start-ups, nonprofits or government, said Ray, who chairs the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, which has one of the nation's oldest food studies master's program and enrolls about 175 students.
Food culture is now "a legitimate" topic for scholarship, and schools use such programs to gain status and attract tuition-paying students, Ray said.
"Universities try to elbow into a crowded marketplace. They are seeking to do something new and make a mark in a field of knowledge not dominated by someone else," he said.
The University of the Pacific, which has its main campus in Stockton, established its food studies master's program in restaurant-obsessed San Francisco and enrolled 14 students this fall. Colleges are catching up to public interest in food, said program director Ken Albala, a historian. "You can talk about food from an intellectual standpoint and not just what tastes good," he said. Courses include: "food and literature" and "business of food."
Miranda Rosso, 26, is taking some of those night classes while working as a behavioral therapist in an elementary school. She hopes to shift careers to a food-tech start-up or a nonprofit organization in the field. Foodie culture "is so much a part of our lives now, it makes sense that it is becoming part of college programs," she said, adding that it especially makes sense in a state where agriculture, wine and restaurants are so prominent.
Across the bay, the 3-year-old Berkeley Food Institute think tank at the UC campus brings together scholars and speakers on scientific and policy research. That work was bolstered last year when the UC system launched the UC Global Food Initiative, which draws together and funds food scholarship in agriculture, medicine, nutrition, climate science, social science and the humanities.
At the UC Berkeley campus recently, a lot was cooking in the food systems field. A public policy class learned about environmental damage from large-scale hog farms. In a nutrition course, a professor lectured about fermentation and students presented research about production and consumption of canned tuna; later a lab section worked in a test kitchen comparing the starch content of different potato varieties. About 50 students attended an evening discussion about food industry careers, with alumni discussing their jobs in the food stamps program and in farmers market organizations. Influential chefs Alice Waters and Claus Meyer spoke at a forum on sustainable food entrepreneurship.
Changes are apparent in campus dining facilities too. The popular Brown's cafe, in the genetics and plant biology building, switched its menu recently to mainly foods grown or processed within 250 miles of campus.
During an interview there, Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, which helped develop the new food systems minor, said that about 45 preexisting courses across many departments were included in the program. Those include "environmental plant biology," "human food practices" and "economics of water resources." The goal is education about the chain "from production and distribution to consumption and impact," Thrupp said.
So far, 15 students have signed up and many more are about to. Ramji Pasricha of Cerritos, a pre-med student majoring in environmental sciences, said she added the food systems minor to better counsel future patients about their diets. She said she wants to bolster any advice about "choosing an apple over a Coca-Cola." In addition, like many students, Pasricha has a personal stake, seeing relatives suffer from diabetes.
Other UC campuses are joining the trend. UCLA has a new food studies graduate certificate program, a freshman science and environmental survey course centered on food and a "food justice" class emphasizing field work at community gardens and kitchens. UC Davis established a World Food Center research facility and a major in sustainable agriculture and food systems, while UC Santa Cruz offers a concentration in "agroecology & sustainable food systems," and both campuses have extensive farm projects.
At the UCLA freshman class recently, environmental studies professor Cully Nordby lectured to 160 students about endangered species, detailing the debate over shark tail soup in Asian cuisine. Later she explained how food links such topics as pollution, water resources, biology, poverty and healthy diets.
"Everyone eats," she said. "So using food as the lens makes it relatable and personal to the students."