Inside even the smallest bite of food exists a complex world of fascinating interconnections.

“Food helps us think about a range of important issues, everything from cultural sensitivity to climate change, from health concerns to hunger,” said Anna Zeide, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech. “Virginia Tech has a rich and storied tradition of studying food from the perspectives of the applied sciences of agriculture, food science, nutrition, and more.”

As part of a new chapter in its legacy, Virginia Tech has launched a Food Studies Program.

Zeide serves as founding director of the program, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “The Food Studies Program was created,” she said, “to forge community around food studies from a humanities and social science perspective in service to faculty, staff, students, and the public.”

Anna Zeide, associate professor
Anna Zeide, an associate professor of history, now directs the new Food Studies Program.

The program offers a space for collaboration in a range of projects across the university and around the region. Students, scholars, and community members can connect through the program to share projects and ideas. 

“The Food Studies Program will be an amazing contribution to the intellectual life and community at Virginia Tech,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I have seen firsthand how powerfully students respond when their understandings of food, something with which they are all deeply familiar yet have rarely studied, are transformed. The Food Studies Program will bring together scholars, vintners, restaurant owners, chefs, farmers, and many others in settings on campus and beyond.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the program provides opportunities to collaborate through its website, newsletters, and Listserv. Beginning in the spring semester, a monthly speaker series will feature interactive virtual launch events introducing the program, the broader areas of food studies, and specific food studies projects already in motion.

A food studies Pathways minor is under construction, along with a range of new courses. Pathways minors are a key feature of Virginia Tech’s general education program, which includes core and integrative concepts, as well as learning outcomes for undergraduates.

The program’s steering committee includes Mark Barrow, a professor of history; Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology; Danille Christensen, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture; and Saul Halfon, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society.

In its quest to bring humanities perspectives to food, the program will seek answers to questions with societal, cultural, and ethical implications.

“What ethical considerations must we take into account before adopting new food technologies?” Zeide asked. “How do factors like race, class, and gender shape food access and food labor? How do humans use food to express beauty, concern, and relationships? The program will pursue the multilayered answers to these questions and more.”

Long term, the program seeks to build relationships with the broader New River Valley community and connect with local organizers. Zeide ultimately hopes to develop additional curriculum to support a graduate certificate and an integrative undergraduate major in food studies that interfaces with the existing Pathways minor in civic agriculture and food systems, offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Additional future programming includes annual symposiums and field trips to explore food issues on the ground.

“We hope to bring the resources of Virginia Tech and the strength of the humanities to pressing issues, such as food insecurity, food waste, and local food economies, while following the lead of our community partners,” Zeide said.

An expert in food studies, Zeide authored the award-winning “Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry.” The book centers on the history of the commercial canning industry and provides insight into the centrality of processed food in American diets more broadly.

“Many commentators today lament the highly processed nature of our food supply, alternately blaming consumers for making bad choices and the food industry for creating products with so many unhealthful ingredients,” said Zeide. “But if you look to the past, it is clear how relatively recent a phenomenon this is. Peering behind the veil that separates us from the historical and geographical origins of our food helps us to see the individual decisions made along the way.”

Zeide’s work exemplifies the discoveries a scholar can make by viewing food issues through the lenses of social and historical contexts.

The program’s four-part virtual speaker series — all on the last Fridays of each month in the spring 2021 semester — begins Jan. 29 with an introduction to the program’s offerings and steering committee members. On Feb. 26, scholars will explore the scope of food studies and offer suggestions for how food connects across disciplines and experiences.

The March 26 event will sample a range of food studies projects at Virginia Tech, including those focused on archives, oral histories, indigenous foodways, and global food sovereignty. On April 30, viewers are encouraged to bring a personally meaningful food to a virtual potluck and share how foods give texture to their lives and histories.

More details on the upcoming speakers series will be available prior to each date on the college’s featured events page and on the program’s website.  

In addition to the Food Studies Program, the university offers additional opportunities to study agricultural issues through the lenses of justice and sustainability in the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation led by faculty in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Anyone interested in actively contributing to the program is welcome to apply to become a Food Studies Program associate. For more information about the Food Studies Program, visit the program website and join the Listserv.

Written by Andrew Adkins