UCLA food studies institute to tackle global food challenges

Increasingly, scholars are studying food — its production, preparation, sharing, consumption and disposal — to better understand and tackle global challenges such as climate change, health and social disparities and labor conditions, and to improve access to information.

Already a leader in the emerging field of food studies, UCLA has created an interdisciplinary institute devoted to research, teaching and policy about food, made possible by an anonymous $13.5 million gift.

The UCLA Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies will bring together faculty, staff, students, chefs and members of the community and house UCLA’s popular food studies minor and graduate certificate program. The gift will provide ongoing funding for research, curriculum and library resources, including the first endowed food studies librarian at a university, as well as hands-on experiential learning opportunities such as a new chef-in-residence program that would begin in spring 2022. It will expand the offerings of the UCLA Teaching Kitchen, launched in 2019, which helps students learn to cook healthy and affordable meals and which has operated remotely during the pandemic.

“Food is central to the human experience, and this new institute will play a leading role in examining aspects of our relationship with food as well as the ways in which food systems tie into larger issues like public health, sustainability and economic well-being,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “The institute exemplifies what UCLA does so well, which is bring communities together alongside experts from across the disciplines to address some of society’s most complex challenges.”

The institute bolsters the UC Office of the President’s Global Food Initiative, created in 2014 and focused on how to feed a world population expected to reach 8 billion by 2025.

“UCLA is uniquely positioned as a leader in food studies,” said biophysicist Amy Rowat, UCLA’s Marcie H. Rothman Professor of Food Studies. “We are known for our strengths in the sciences and the arts, and have strong partnerships with community organizations dedicated to equal food access. We will also capitalize on UCLA’s location in one of the most diverse cities in the world, which is home to so many innovative chefs.”

Rowat, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College, is a pioneer in using food to introduce complex concepts in science to nonscientists. She is co-director of the UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative EatWell pod and the founder and director of the Science and Food organization at UCLA. Rowat will spearhead many of the institute’s activities, including expanding her long-running science and food course and developing the chef-in-residence program, a 10-week interdisciplinary course in which chefs are paired with faculty to engage students on topics from food equity to the microbiome. Rowat’s lab will continue to develop sustainable options for food production.

Helping to advance the institute’s vision and Rowat’s work is UCLA Library’s new Rothman Family Food Studies Librarian. Alexandra Solodkaya is the first person to hold the position and she will curate a broad scope of food-related research and teaching services, materials and collections. Given the speed with which social media can amplify incorrect information, the food studies librarian will challenge students to think critically about sources.

“We are grateful for this gift — the largest in the division’s history — which will allow more of our students and faculty to delve into this growing area of inquiry,” said Adriana Galván, dean of the division of undergraduate education, who emphasized how the institute’s interdisciplinary approach would benefit students.

“Food can heal. The institute is looking at food from a system-based, interdisciplinary perspective to contribute to the health and well-being of the individual, community and the planet,” said Dr. Wendelin Slusser, associate vice provost of Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, whose work across campus and in Los Angeles helped build the foundation for the institute.

View the original post by Elizabeth Kivowitz at UCLA Newsroom

UCLA introduces new institute providing interdisciplinary food studies education

A new institute is opening up at UCLA that focuses on a major part of daily life: food.

The new UCLA Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies under the Division of Undergraduate Education focuses on the interdisciplinary nature of food in research and education, said Adriana Galván, the dean of undergraduate education. It was made possible by an anonymous $13.5 million donation.

“This gift is completely transformative for UCLA because it is a place that will bring together scholars and students from a lot of different disciplines to coalesce around food,” said Galván.

The institute will also expand upon opportunities within current UCLA food studies programs, creating new spaces to learn about food sustainability, access to food, the chemistry of food and more. Researchers, whose work will also be supported and expanded by the gift, will have more opportunities to consult with their colleagues in other fields – such as psychology and policy – to more effectively implement their findings.

Dr. Wendelin Slusser, the associate vice provost of the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center, said the effort to create the institute was inspired by the university’s push to uncover innovative ways to promote living well on campus which began with UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative in 2013.

A Semel HCI summit led to the establishment of UCLA’s food studies graduate certificate program, which allows students to explore the subject of food in an academic way related to their own interests – such as health, politics, social justice or history, Slusser added.

UCLA also currently offers a food studies minor for undergraduates – another product of the summit.

[Related: UCLA serves up food studies minor]

Dana Gillis, a fourth-year philosophy student pursuing a minor in food studies, said the interdisciplinary nature of food has been reflected by the diversity of classes she has taken. Course requirements span a range of departments, including anthropology, geography, urban planning and physiological sciences.

“Food is so central to all of our lives that it really penetrates through all different disciplines,” said Amy Rowat, the faculty chair of the food studies minor and associate professor and vice chair of graduate education in the integrative biology and physiology department.

Gillis said she appreciates the way food studies brings students together to share the different perspectives shaped by the cultures and foods they have enjoyed throughout their lives.

“What I’ve taken away from the classes is that there’s a deeper history to all foods and the way that they connect to culture and society,” Gillis said.

Slusser added that the diversity of minds being cultivated at UCLA will create thinkers prepared to solve future problems.

“It’s really to empower and educate the next generation of interdisciplinary leaders and game changers to address the major issues of our time around food,” Slusser said.

(Courtesy of Elizabeth Kivowitz)

Dr. Wendelin Slusser works with food in the UCLA Teaching Kitchen. Slusser added that the effort behind the creation of the new institute for food studies followed and built upon the work of UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative. (Courtesy of UCLA)

Rowat, who is also the current Marcie H. Rothman presidential chair in food studies, said the new institute will power an increase in the course offerings of food studies for undergraduates at UCLA.

With additional faculty supported by the institute, there will be more individuals dedicated to teaching and conducting research about food, Rowat said.

Rowat added that her own lab is currently working on sustainable protein production and using their expertise to cultivate animal protein by developing and utilizing new engineering approaches.

The institute will also encourage students to study existing research with the help of Alexandra Solodkaya, the Rothman Family food studies librarian. Solodkaya holds the first endowed position at any library across the country focusing specifically on food studies.

Solodkaya said she will be providing students with instruction on information literacy for any food-related courses – something she believes is crucial given online misinformation about food.

“Having a trained librarian who’s versed in information sourcing and citations and our sort of networked information systems is important to get at what is really accurate,” Solodkaya said. “That’s part of the education that we provide at UCLA.”

Students and faculty who are in the department or simply have an interest in food will be able to benefit from her knowledge, resources and connections, Solodkaya said.

Solodkaya said she aims to forge new connections – such as between North Campus students, with arts and humanities perspectives, and South Campus students, with knowledge in the sciences – to encourage collaboration and innovation.

“That’s really the beauty that the Food Institute brings and that the library can help enhance,” Solodkaya said.

Galván, who is also a psychology professor focusing on adolescent brain development, said there is tremendous value in students learning about food and healthy habits while they are preparing to be adults.

“College is a perfect time to give a more intentional and profound examination of food,” Galván said. “If we can impart the importance of thinking about what we eat, who has access to it and how we engage with it, we’re hopefully going to set the stage for lifelong healthy eating.”

Galván said she is also excited for more students to apply their knowledge in a practical setting in UCLA’s Teaching Kitchen through virtual and in-person programs and workshops that are available to all Bruins.

(Courtesy of Elizabeth Kivowitz)

Students practice cooking skills in the UCLA Teaching Kitchen. Professors involved with the current food studies minor and graduate certificate programs emphasized the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to food studies and the benefits the new institute will bring to the campus community. (Courtesy of UCLA)

Launched in October 2019, the Teaching Kitchen is a space on campus for students to engage in both curricular and extracurricular activities through food and cooking, Rowat said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person operations for a while, the kitchen found innovative ways to still reach out to the communities it intends to serve and educate.

“We were able to serve, through the Community Programs Office, hundreds of undergrad and graduate students who identified as food insecure education virtually on how to prepare meals that were healthy but also OK on the pocketbook,” Slusser said.

Slusser said she is excited that the new institute will support the people and resources needed to educate communities on improving daily choices and will further encourage and prepare the next generation of leaders.

“The whole premise of what we try and aspire to do is to raise the health and well-being of our community, students, staff and faculty from the bottom up,” Slusser said. “It’s been a grassroots effort and a community-organizing social movement to engage people.”

View the original post at the Daily Bruin