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The path food takes on its way from soil to table and the hands and systems it passes through are a mystery to many Americans who purchase their groceries in supermarkets. A new course that will be offered in Fall 2019 called “Just Food: Exploring the Modern Food System” will challenge students’ perceptions and deliver insights into both domestic and international food systems.

With an interdisciplinary team of instructors – Rachel Bezner Kerr, professor of development sociology, and Frank Rossi, associate professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science – the course will offer a critical and sometimes clashing perspective on existing paradigms and tackle topics including food security, environmental stewardship, and equity in an era of climate change.

In the 154 years since Cornell University was founded, the way Americans interact with food has drastically changed. Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, explains that when the college was established, most Americans either grew up on a farm or had family members who lived on a farm, which allowed direct insight for citizens into how food made its way to tables.

“Today, with fewer than 2% of our national population directly involved in production agriculture, most of our students do not have direct farm experience,” said Boor. “However, it is our collective responsibility to make informed choices regarding creation of sustainable food systems. Whether from rural or urban backgrounds, it is critically important that our students fully understand the challenges and opportunities – biological, social, ecological and financial – that face today’s farming families and that affect the movement of food products from farm to table.”

In a unique twist, the course will satisfy a physical and life sciences credit for social science students, and for other science students the course will count as a humanities credit. The course will not be a requirement for all students, at least in the next couple of years.

The course, which is a lecture with lab cross-listed as PLSC/DSOC 1300,  is designed to challenge students from different disciplines on some of the biggest controversies in the world of food, such as meat production, genetically modified crops, and causes of hunger.

“This course will help students to think critically and systematically about food – where it comes from and how it is produced – and the social, health, political and environmental impacts of food,” Bezner Kerr said. “We will also expose students to a range of alternatives to the dominant ways that food is produced that try to address issues of environmental stewardship, social justice and food security.”

Cornell University and Ithaca are surrounded by farmers and producers. As part of the course, Rossi said they will highlight local resources, try different foods, and visit local farms, orchards and grocery stores.

The dynamic between Rossi and Bezner Kerr will be a vital part of the class, Rossi said, and will show the importance of blending social science with physical sciences. They will be covering issues along the full food system, from production and distribution to environmental issues and socio-economic issues.

“The land-grant institution that I’m a part of, like all other land-grant institutions, has been charged with providing a safe and affordable food supply, and we did just that,” said Rossi. “We looked at chemicals as miracles, we looked at industrial agriculture as a miracle, and now we’re starting to see – as the planet becomes challenged for a variety of reasons – that maybe we have to rethink the systems. The problem is, like banking, we’ve let them get so big and unwieldy, they’re resistant to change. I don’t know if we’re going to cover every aspect of the system, but we’re going to make sure our students hear about issues that are most current and pertinent in their daily lives about the food system that we want them mindful of.”

Bezner Kerr said her hope is that students will walk away with a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the food system and their place in it and with strategies to change it for the better.

Kelsey O’Connor is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences  

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