Harnessing the Transformative Power of Food

In his book “Eaarth,” climate change activist Bill McKibben floats the idea that decentralization will be the key to navigating the complex issues facing our rapidly-changing planet: “The future should belong, and could belong, to the small and many, not the big and few.”

JWU Providence’s new bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems applies this holistic — and personal — approach to exploring ways to transform our entrenched, largely industrialized systems into more resilient, responsive and dynamic networks that work for — not against — the planet.

“We’re teaching students about the political economy that surrounds their food.”

Chef Branden Lewis, who spearheaded the development of the program, sees it as “a moral obligation” for chefs to understand how their professional practice (be it cooking, sourcing, product development or policy-making) affects the longterm longevity of our food systems: “We’re actually teaching students about the political economy that surrounds their food,” he explains. “You can take an action-based approach to address sustainability like no one else can. You have to know what your decisions mean for the food system, for your communities, for your workers.”

The seeds for the program were sown in 2011, when JWU first offered the Wellness & Sustainability concentration. Focusing on food sourcing, ethics and conservation, it quickly became wildly popular among culinary arts and baking & pastry students — and industry partners as well. Students no longer just studied the food web — they visited farms, took part in the harvest, and cooked with just-picked produce. Farmers, chefs, and purveyors made regular visits to labs to share their own experiences and expertise.

That dialogue continues in Sustainable Food Systems, which is offered through the College of Food Innovation & Technology. Thanks to electives and a growing selection of minors, students have a great range of flexibility to explore their interests and customize their own path.

The program’s structure provides an interdisciplinary framework to enable students to explore diverse perspectives at the intersection of social food justice, policy and advocacy, and environmental protection. Notes Lewis, “I could sit here and tell you what’s more sustainable, or you can decide for yourself by experiencing it. That’s a transformative moment — and you can’t really do anything except foster conditions to help create that moment.”

For Lewis, it’s an incredible opportunity for students to develop their critical thinking and become resilient learners — all in the service of shaping innovative solutions to issues like climate change, food loss and food security. “That’s what we need to tackle problems and challenges we don’t even know and can’t anticipate at this time,” he notes. (There is also a master’s program in Food Innovation & Technology for those who want to take an even deeper dive into these complex systemic issues.)

Now is a perfect time to study these issues, because the global onset of COVID-19 has exposed inherent weaknesses in our global industrialized systems. Food supplies, labor and even transportation routes have experienced everything from bottlenecks to extreme scarcity as the pandemic has wreaked havoc worldwide.

As a result, many consumers shifted their purchasing power to local farms, producers and grocers. Lewis sees this as a necessary correction: “Industrial food supply chains have sort of broken down during this pandemic,” he notes. “Regionalized supply chains and local growers have really come to the rescue and so I think that this has been a great opportunity for people to realize that they they’ve always been there for us and they continue to just support us.”

The next step will be to build upon the momentum for better, more scalable food webs that rely more heavily on local foods. Lewis is hopeful that these changes can be lasting — and that the paradigm shift in our thinking about what constitutes a healthy, sustainable supply chain (local or global) is also here to stay. When it comes to food solutions, he notes, “we’re all in this together.”