The University of Southern Maine is launching a food studies program next spring to provide a broad, liberal arts-style education in food and offer at least 30 paid internships a year to students who want to try working in food-related businesses or anti-hunger organizations in Maine.

The $720,000 program will be paid for by the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, a public-private partnership that promotes economic development through Maine’s public universities. It will roll out over the next three years, starting with an undergraduate minor in food studies next spring, followed by undergraduate and graduate internships in fall. In spring 2018, graduate certificates in food studies will be available, as well as master’s level electives offered through existing graduate programs in business and social work.

“One of the things we’re going to emphasize is bringing local and national speakers to campus on a regular basis,” said Michael Hillard, the economics professor who first proposed the program two years ago. “We’re going to have good funding for that.”

Food studies programs are cropping up all over the country, especially in places where there is a rapidly growing food economy and a larger culture interested in local foods, ethically produced foods and issues such as sustainability and food insecurity. Maine has all of this, Hillard noted, plus “an incredible entrepreneurial business culture that’s producing the unbelievable restaurant industry we have in Portland and the microbrewery scene.”

The hope is that the food studies program will help bring all of these diverse parts of the food economy together and, at the same time, provide food-related businesses with a better-trained workforce to help build the state’s food system, which many see as a powerful new economic engine. The program would also help USM’s bottom line by attracting students who are passionate about food and social justice.

“Food studies” has been defined as the interdisciplinary study of food systems. Nutrition professors have already embraced this concept, Hillard said, understanding that they can’t fight diabetes and obesity while totally ignoring the economics that contributes to such illnesses.

Hillard and others involved in creating the program are working this week at a retreat to develop the curriculum. The project has drawn the interest of some national leaders in the food studies field who will be at the retreat to guide the process and act as mentors. Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, will attend, as will Molly Anderson, who helped develop the food studies program at the College of the Atlantic and is now doing the same at Middlebury College in Vermont.

The program eventually will have three full-time faculty, a program director and an administrative specialist. Five existing faculty members, including Hillard and sociology professor Cheryl Laz, also will teach classes and an advisory board will oversee everything.

FROM SOUP TO NUTS

The curriculum is still in the planning stages. Food studies students will receive a “big picture” grounding in food systems that integrates the natural and social sciences, such as economics and geography, with the humanities, including food history and the anthropological study of food. There will be agricultural courses and courses about nutrition and social justice. A typical course might be similar to one that Hillard is teaching already – the Political Economy of Food – in which his students critique the way the nation’s corporate food system works.

Students also would have access to applied courses teaching professional skills that would, for example, help an entrepreneur run a food business or teach a fisherman how to keep better books.

Two visiting scholars will jump-start the food studies program next spring. Ardis Cameron, who taught American and New England Studies at USM before the program was eliminated in budget cuts, will collaborate with the Maine Humanities Council on a lecture series bringing nationally known speakers to campus. The other scholar is Kristin Reynolds, a food systems researcher and educator at The New School in New York who has just published a book called “Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City.”

More than 30 people have applied for the program director position, which will be filled in October, and word has gotten out about the new faculty positions, two of which will be advertised later this fall. The third faculty hire will happen next fall. It will have a focus on food security and will be a shared position with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service.

Hillard said the quality of applicants for the program director position has been “really off the charts.”

“I have great confidence that we’re going to have a great applicant pool,” he said.

A group that is designing a food studies program for USM discusses plans over lunch at Isa Bistro on Portland Street. The effort is under the direction of Michael Hillard, right, and includes, from left, Mary-Elizabeth Simms, Jo D. Saffeir and Ali Mediate.

A group that is designing a food studies program for USM discusses plans over lunch at Isa Bistro on Portland Street. The effort is under the direction of Michael Hillard, right, and includes, from left, Mary-Elizabeth Simms, Jo D. Saffeir and Ali Mediate. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WHY NOW?

Just two years ago, the university was slashing programs and laying off 50 faculty. Why this expansion?

“It has a lot to do with having good leadership and stable enrollments, since we’re so tuition-dependent,” Hillard said. He said the current administration has stabilized finances and enrollment, and the school is now thinking about how to regroup and invest in new things.

The food studies program has the support of Nancy Griffin, the new vice president for enrollment management who came to USM from Johns Hopkins University. According to her research looking at SAT data published last year, 133 college-bound seniors in Maine and 245 in New Hampshire indicated interest in an academic program related to food studies.

In a memo on enrollment projections for the food studies program, Griffin estimated that, after four years, USM could expect an enrollment of 40 to 80 undergraduates and 20 to 40 graduates students.

“That translates into roughly $1 million in tuition revenue if we have modest success,” Hillard said.

Nationwide, demand for food studies courses is high. Most schools are finding there are at least two applicants for every opening in food studies programs, according to the USM proposal, which states: “There is no doubt this gap will be filled by some Maine-based educational institution; the question is simply when and by whom?”

Jonah Fertig, a board member of the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative, notes there are agriculture programs and culinary arts projects all over the state, and the food studies program could be a good way to connect them and provide professional development for people who work in the food world.

“There’s all these different roles people play in the food system,” he said, “and we really need to recognize those, connect them together, and be able to provide that institutional support to grow our food system here in the state.”

Kristen Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank, agreed. “There’s so much going on in Maine’s food system, from producers all the way to food insecurity, and it’s been largely fragmented,” she said. “There are so many different groups talking, and so many councils and meetings, it can make your head spin. This might provide some cohesiveness to it all.”

Academically, there’s no place for a student seeking a master’s degree in food studies to go in Maine. When Amanda Beal, president of the Maine Farmland Trust, wanted to pursue graduate studies in 2009, all of her options were out of state. She eventually enrolled in the well-regarded Tufts program.

“If there had been an option closer to home,” she said, “knowing that I wanted to continue my work in Maine, I likely would have taken full advantage of it.”

Beal thinks having a food studies program in Maine could also help keep graduates here after they earn their degrees. While she returned to Maine, “many of my classmates relocated to Boston for grad school and then moved on to jobs in other places from there.”

FEEDING A NEED

Caroline Paras, a community and economic planner at the Greater Portland Council of Governments, was invited to be on a committee examining the proposal, but admits that she didn’t even know food studies was an academic discipline before getting involved. She thinks all of the options offered by the program, including the graduate certificate, “really opens up the market of potential students.”

“It will appeal not only to students who want to get into the food world, but also professionals – well, professionals like me, to be honest,” she said. “I’ve been looking at Boston University’s gastronomy program.” Paras, who has been working with more food entrepreneurs lately, thinks professionals would use the food studies program to beef up their skills or as a stepping stone to a new career in food.

She is less sure about national appeal, although USM is planning to market the program nationally.

“Without a Ph.D. program or a standalone bachelor’s degree, I don’t think the offerings are strong enough to attract someone to come to Maine for this program,” she said.

Hillard foresees a time when food studies will become a full academic program with a degree, but launching such a program is costly, risky and takes time.

Fertig cautions that this new program shouldn’t just become a vehicle for creating “a new class of food system academics.” It needs to provide scholarships, internships and other forms of financial support for the people who work in the fields and on the boats to make sure the program is relevant out in the real world.

“The reality is our food service workers, farmers and fishermen are underpaid and overworked,” he said, “and we need to create opportunities for them to participate in a program like this.” Such workers would be able to both sharpen their business skills and learn more about the philosophical underpinnings of subjects such as sustainability.

The internship program will be funded by a separate $120,000 grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, enough to at least partially fund 30 internships a year. The hope is that employers will contribute something to an intern’s paycheck as well, which would make the money stretch further.

Many University of Southern Maine students already work close to full time (many of them in restaurants) while going to school full time, Hillard said, and most don’t live at home or in dorms. So offering unpaid internships seemed unrealistic, he said.

Miale is excited about getting access to interns and a better-skilled workforce more familiar with issues of food insecurity. She expects that Good Shepherd will double its staff in the next 10 years. “We always joke that no one majors in food banking,” she said.

Another advantage is having students available to do research.

“A huge hole in this work is the lack of good data and research behind it,” she said. “Food insecurity is tracked by the USDA once a year at the national level, yet we do virtually no data collection at the state level other than what we do with our network of partners, and because of our lack of resources, we need to do a better job.”

In preparing its proposal for a food studies program, the university examined the structure and curriculum of more than 20 food studies programs around the country, and reviewed programs and coursework in Maine to be sure there would be no duplication.

As a result, food studies students will learn business skills from USM business professors and will take nutrition classes through the University of Maine in Orono.

“One of the things we’re going to develop is an exchange program,” Hillard said. “If they have students up there who would like to become farmers but they would like to study policy for a semester,” those students will come to USM.

Fertig said the intention of the new program is community engagement, which means connecting the academics with what’s happening on the ground. He hopes that will help build a food system that is not only connected but “rooted in values as well – rooted in sustainability, in equity and local ownership.”