Foodie Culture Is Spurring Degree Programs At U.S. Colleges

Foodie Culture Is Spurring Degree Programs At U.S. Colleges

By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BERKELEY, Calif. — 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 homemade 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 the University of California, 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 Association 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.”

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: UC Berkeley student Ophelia Pedersen peers over finished jars of  raspberry jam during class on fermentation and preservation on Oct. 29, 2015 in Berkeley, Calif. UC campuses and other schools around the country are starting up programs that study food, its production, distribution and cultural significance. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

White House Launches New Online Tool To Help Families Make Informed Decisions On College

White House Launches New Online Tool To Help Families Make Informed Decisions On College

By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Obama administration on Saturday unveiled a new online search tool that is aimed at helping potential college students and their families learn much more about schools, including the financial aid they offer and how much their graduates earn later in life.

Although the new “College Scorecard” will allow consumers to compare various colleges on a variety of factors, it will not provide any ratings or rankings on the order of, for example, U.S. News & World Report.

President Barack Obama said he proposed a ratings system two years ago but, after much study and controversy, his administration abandoned the idea and turned instead to improving existing federal databases for the public.

Department of Education officials said the administration backed away from a ratings system because it proved too complicated to develop and they were afraid it might confuse consumers.

Many colleges and higher-education groups had opposed a ratings system, fearing it would unfairly treat their schools or punish some for enrolling low-income students and less-prepared students, who might be less likely to graduate or more likely to default on loans.

The new scorecard can be accessed at

The scorecard appears to be easier for families to search and navigate than the previous federal College Navigator and College Scorecard, and improved graphics provide for better visual comparisons of schools.

The information is expanded as well, including data about net pricing for low-income and high-income students, graduation rates, ethnic diversity, loan defaults and former students’ median incomes 10 years after starting college.

On Saturday the president said the tool would help families “navigate the complicated college process and make informed decisions.”

“The status quo serves some colleges and the companies that rank them just fine. But it doesn’t always serve our students well _ and that doesn’t serve any of us well,” Obama said. “There are colleges dedicated to helping students of all backgrounds learn without saddling them with debt. We should hold everybody to that standard. Our economic future depends on it.”

The goal, he said, is “to help everybody who’s willing to work for a higher education search for and select a college that fits their goals.”

The scorecard still faced some criticism. The American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities, said the statistics should have provided outcomes for students of various majors, such as engineering and philosophy, rather than lumping everyone together.

The organization also noted that the 10-years-later earnings figures are based on those who took out federal loans and might not reflect the true picture. White House officials say the earnings of borrowers are about the same as everyone else’s.

Photo: If students can’t pay for college, these classrooms will be empty. Kevin Creamer/Flickr

Bill Maher Will Keep His Speaking Date At UC Berkeley Despite Furor

Bill Maher Will Keep His Speaking Date At UC Berkeley Despite Furor

By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

After a weeklong debate over free speech and campus climate, political satirist Bill Maher said he intends to deliver a December commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley despite a controversy surrounding his invitation.

“I want to come, I’m planning to come,” the comedian said Friday night on his “Real Time with Bill Maher” cable show.

Some students last week sought to have his invitation rescinded because of his on-air remarks last month that they allege denigrated Muslims. But citing free speech rights, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks insisted the speech go on as planned.

Maher kept quiet publicly about the situation for a few days. Then, on Friday’s show, he delivered a lengthy riff about it, explaining that he was delighted to accept the invitation to speak at the midyear commencement Dec. 20. “I’m happy to because although I never attended Berkeley, I was very aware of their place in the American debate on the far left,” he said.

“They invited me because it was the 50th anniversary of something that is legendary on that campus, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement,” he said, referring to influential student protests against rules that limited on-campus activism. “I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore.”

A campus student organization that helps choose commencement speakers voted to rescind Maher’s invitation. Its leaders said it took that position not because of Maher’s views but because the debate about his presence would have harmed the celebratory nature of the graduation event.

Dirks then overruled the student group and said the invitation will stand. His statement noted that the decision “does not constitute an endorsement” of any of Maher’s views, although it supports the television personality’s right to express them.

“More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative,” Dirks’ statement said.

Protesters wanted Maher disinvited because of statements he made on his Oct. 6 show that they contend portrayed Islam as a violent faith and suggested that most Muslims believe that anyone who leaves the religion should be executed.

The Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian Coalition on campus and other groups started an online petition drive seeking to block the speech, calling Maher’s comments racist, divisive and offensive to many students. UC Berkeley should not “invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment,” the petition said in part.

On Friday’s show, Maher insisted that he is not a bigot. He said that students and others who signed the online petition don’t seem to understand the open nature of universities and a democratic society: “That’s how it’s done, kids. Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”

His only regret, he said, was that he feared the speech might prompt a media blitz that could detract from the graduation festivities.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Colleges Reject Charge That Freshman Reading Lists Have Political Bias

Colleges Reject Charge That Freshman Reading Lists Have Political Bias

By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

Freshmen at colleges around the country for years have been assigned to read the same books as a way to bond at orientation and to encourage intellectual interactions rather than just social ones
But this year, some of the reading selections are under attack.

In South Carolina, for example, the state Legislature tried to cut funding for two state universities that selected books with gay themes.

The conservative Young Americans for Freedom compiled a list of books it contends offer only left-leaning perspectives, including “Americanah,” a novel by a celebrated Nigerian writer that was picked this year at Pomona College, Penn State, Duke University, and Macalester College.

The National Association of Scholars had another beef. It advocates the classics and argued in a recent report that by frequently selecting contemporary literature, “colleges are implying that students have little to learn from the past. Or perhaps they simply think students’ attention spans are too limited for them to want to pick up such a book and read it on their own.”

The group suggested schools should instead assign such alternatives as James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Shakespeare’s plays, and selections from the Bible.

Colleges deny any political intent. They say they seek high-quality books that provoke debate and that they are encouraging it as an academic experience among all the other events and parties during those first few days on campus. Since many schools invite authors to campus, classics by long-dead writers don’t fit the bill and there are other opportunities to study them, colleges say.

A common book “is a tangible bond but it has intellectual heft as opposed to just wearing the school colors,” said Cheryl Spector, director of academic first-year experiences at California State University, Northridge, where this year’s common reading is “The Postmortal,” a futuristic novel by Drew Magary about possible immortality and a cure for aging.

Critics misunderstand the programs’ goals, she said: “The fact is we are not trying to pick literary masterpieces primarily, although we don’t mind it if we hit them. But we do want engagement with students. We want to invite them to a love of reading.”

Nearly 40 percent of colleges ask students to participate in such readings, according to a recent survey by the Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education.

At Pomona College, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” a novel about Nigerians who immigrate to the United States and Britain and return home, was selected from 40 nominated books by a panel of faculty, students, and others. Copies were mailed to incoming freshmen’s homes.

Pomona’s dean of students, Miriam Feldblum, said Young Americans for Freedom badly mischaracterized the book. The novel, she said, offers multiple perspectives of racial topics and American and Nigerian societies and emphasizes that people should not make assumptions about culture and history. Beyond its cross-cultural themes, it’s a good book for young people because it examines long friendships and life’s unexpected turns, she said.

The college aims for political balance, Feldblum said, pointing to the 2008 selections of autobiographies from both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.

During Pomona’s orientation recently, freshmen gathered in an auditorium to watch an online TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talk by Adichie. (She is to lecture in person on campus next month.) They then broke into smaller groups to discuss the novel. History professor Samuel Yamashita coaxed his group to grapple with characters, plot and issues concerning cultural barriers and romance. Some students were talkative and others reluctant at first but most eventually participated.

Later, freshman Lauren Bollinger praised the reading effort as “another step to unite the freshman class, socially and academically.” She said current books like “Americanah” were more likely to trigger interaction than the classics assigned in high school.

Besides, she said she probably will major in English, and the classics will be “a big part of my education.”

In South Carolina, legislators originally sought to cut funding from the College of Charleston for assigning “Fun Home,” an illustrated memoir by lesbian writer Alison Bechdel, and the University of South Carolina Upstate for “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” a compilation of gay-themed stories. After much protest over academic freedom, lawmakers instead required the schools to devote $70,000 — the cost of the reading programs — to teaching about the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents.

The goal should be introducing students to college-level readings, particularly as campuses reduce core-course requirements, said Ashley Thorne, an official at the National Association of Scholars and the main author of its report, “Beach Books.” Too many common readings are new books about those overcoming adversity or aiding others, which leaves no room for more challenging works that have been “tested by time,” she said.

Colleges, however, emphasize that it’s also instructive and exciting for students to have the authors on campus. At Cal State Northridge, for example, Magary addressed the freshman Convocation and spoke more about creativity and overcoming youthful mistakes than about details of his 2011 novel.

Colorado College this year embraced a classic, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” While that might please traditionalists, the school also invited a theater troupe to perform a satirical send-up of “Hamlet,” including puppets and a goldfish in a bowl symbolizing tragic heroine Ophelia.

Students still grappled with issues of “loss, grief, revenge, and isolation,” said Regula Meyer Evitt, an associate dean. Behind the royal successions and murders, freshmen found relevance in a play about “a guy who is miserable at home and wants to go back to college and a young woman who is terribly in love with him.”

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Lawrence K. Ho

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