Delia Sarich grew up in a restaurant-owning family in New York. The 30-year-old decided she wanted to get a master’s degree in food studies. Rather than choosing a well-established program closer to home, like from New York University, she is part of the pioneering class of 14 students at University of the Pacific’s brand new food studies program in San Francisco.
“It made sense to me to study food studies in California, especially in San Francisco — that was a big draw,” she said. “With the amount of food around here, and number of restaurants in the city, it’s a great place to be.”
While Sarich just started this fall, the program is already exceeding her expectations.
“One of the classes we’re taking is food politics with Michele Simon (author of “Appetite for Profit, How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back”), who’s done a lot of food activism,” said Sarich. “It’s been really inspiring to learn about the problems within the food industry and the food system.”
While Sarich doesn’t know what career she’ll pursue once she completes the program, “Whatever I end up doing, I’ll make an ethical choice,” she said. “This program is making me think about shaping my career goals in terms of thinking ethically.”
Directing the program is Ken Albala, a food scholar who has written or edited 23 books, and has taught in the field throughout the country. For Albala, who’s worked at the school’s main campus in Stockton for the past 21 years, the master’s degree level program been a long time coming.
“I’ve been trying to get this program together for about a decade, but no one here knew how to start a new program…I don’t think Stockton would have been the place to do it,” he said.
The University of the Pacific also runs programs in Sacramento and San Francisco; when the School of Dentistry moved into a new location in SOMA, there was room in the building for a few other disciplines to be there as well.
“Obviously San Francisco attracts a completely different market,” said Albala.
While scholars like Albala (who actually got his PhD in history) have been studying food for decades, the rise of food studies programs is still relatively new.
“It’s comparable to women’s studies or American studies and other interdisciplinary programs which came out of the 70s and 80s,” he said. New York University was the first to establish a master’s level program over 20 years ago – with Marion Nestle behind it – and Boston University quick to follow.
While UC Berkeley recently introduced a food systems minor program for undergraduates, this is the first master’s level food program on the West Coast.
“The whole idea of food in academia exploded about two or three years ago, and programs have been popping up like mushrooms,” said Albala. “But they’re all a little different. The study of food systems focuses more on agriculture, distribution and less on consumption.”
Pacific examines food through a broad range of subjects: history; sociology; anthropology; politics; literature; art; and business.
It’s “as interdisciplinary as we can,” said Albala. “One thing it doesn’t include is anything cooking related because we don’t have a kitchen. I’d like there to be, as we get bigger numbers, but I need a big donor for that.”
The classes for the program are generally at night, allowing students to hold full-time jobs at the same time.
While Albala said there’s a diverse number of job prospects available to students after graduation, he hopes they’ll emerge with their own ideas about how to work within the food system to create change.
“We have a food system that has a whole lot of things wrong with it,” said Albala. “There’s unfair access to food, bad wages for workers, environmental degradation, poor treatment of animals. There are a million different things that could be better. And people blithely eating food thinking that because it’s inexpensive, it’s got to be good. [They] don’t see the hidden costs of the food system, why their taxes go toward subsidies to grow corn or soy and are then sold back to them in the form of Froot Loops, or whatever it is.”
It’s Albala’s hope that his students will infiltrate some of those companies with their own ideas of how to make change.
He concluded, “We need people who will go in and change the food system for the better because they’re informed.”