Up from the Roots


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Our food systems are facing unprecedented challenges that have wide-ranging social and political implications.

The new College of Food Innovation & Technology (CFIT) is designed to help students define a better future for food — and change the world by changing how it eats.

When Jason Evans left his hometown of Beckley, West Virginia, in 1998 to attend the University of Virginia, the experience was revelatory. It wasn’t just how different the world looked beyond the narrow valleys and verdant rolling hills of southern West Virginia, where his family has farmed and mined since 1890, but how differently the rest of the world ate.

“I assumed that everybody grew their own food, and that their moms and grandmoms canned and froze food all summer,” says Evans, dean of the College of Food Innovation & Technology (CFIT). He didn’t realize how good he had it — how much food sovereignty and quality his family farm provided him. “To have control over what you’re eating, and always eating fresh … I was very lucky.”

The world has woken up to the importance of these values, too. Consumer demand for sustainable and local food has grown precipitously. According to the International Food Information Council, 59% of Americans say that sustainable production is an important factor in their food choices — up from 50% in 2017.

This sea change is part of what attracted Evans to the role at Johnson & Wales. “I’m not a chef,” he says. Sure, some of the programs in his department at SUNY Cobleskill, where he chaired the Agricultural & Food Management department before coming to JWU, were culinary ones. “But I wouldn’t have been the guy [for the job] if we hadn’t been moving in this direction.” And that direction is the vision of CFIT, which launched in fall 2020. “It’s a broad portfolio of programs that speak to any way a student might be interested in food and its impact,” says Evans.

Asked for examples of that impact, Evans sketches broadly. Imagine, he says, getting America’s K-12 population to eat healthier and develop better lifelong habits. If that happens, healthcare costs go down, and quality of life goes up. “If we work harder around food education, food security and food access, then over time and across generations, you have young people from all walks of life and economic stratas who understand the value of eating healthy, the value of fresh food, and what buying from a relatively local food system can do from an economic multiplier standpoint,” says Evans.

It can also shape both how and where we live. “Imagine how many communities you’ve driven through that, 100 years ago, were built entirely around agriculture,” says Evans. “It drove main streets, as well as industry and employment. When these small- and medium-scale farms exit the system because they can’t compete with the status quo, those rural communities” — like the one he grew up in — “become ghost towns.” The jobs dry up, and populations move to the city, further driving urbanization trends.

So when you introduce innovation to the system, the effects ripple well beyond our dinner tables.

“Food is a practical tool to make the world better,” says Evans. “If you change the way food makes its way through the system from start to finish, you really can change the world.”

Food is a practical tool to make the world better. If you change the way food makes its way through the system from start to finish, you really can change the world. DEAN JASON EVANS

Farm to Fork

Like consumers, industry has also awakened to the social implications of our food systems. “The value in our industry was formerly placed on luxury items and the ability to capitalize on a global society to get anything, anytime,” says Associate Professor Branden Lewis, Ed.D., ’04, ’06 MBA. “Even though it was, say, $100 a clamshell to get zucchini blossoms delivered to my restaurant in February, I could do it, so why wouldn’t I? That was the mentality.”

But the growing concern for planetary heath, says Lewis, has been transformative. For more than 10 years, he notes, sustainability concepts and topics like plant-based cookery, local sourcing, and farm-to-table cuisine have been dominating the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” annual survey of chefs. “You’re seeing a complete pivot,” he says, affecting everything from food packaging companies to fast-food menus.

Students want to be part of this revolution. “Our students come in with this genuine and honorable belief that they can save the world,” he says. “They feel like the planet is broken and they can fix it.”

And as the industry was changing, JWU was changing with it. “The evolution of the College of Culinary Arts was not the flick of a light switch,” says TJ Delle Donne, ’04, ’07 M.A.T., the assistant dean of culinary relations & special projects. “Since the late 90s, we’ve been inching our way toward this.” He recalls sustainability being on everyone’s mind when the school began to transform physically, noting the ultimately successful push for LEED certification for the Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence, which opened in 2012. “We were thinking with a sustainable mindset, and we started to feel a difference.” That mindset started showing up in the school’s programming, too, with new degrees in Culinary Nutrition, Dietetics and Applied Nutrition, and Culinary Science rolled out in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island was focusing on what it would take to be a sustainable food hub, expanding Farm Fresh Rhode Island (a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the local food system), where Delle Donne serves on the board. “As these things were happening in the state, we were saying, look, our students need to understand that their food doesn’t come out of a bag,” says Delle Donne. “We need to look at the supply chain all the way back to where this food was grown.”

At the end of the semester, some students are literally crying. Students will say, ‘Chef, this has totally changed the way I think about food. It added a morality to my cooking that didn’t exist. I now have an identity as a chef and what I stand for that didn’t exist before your class.’ ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BRANDEN LEWIS

That realization led to the development of a wellness & sustainability concentration, which launched in 2011. It was wildly popular, says Lewis, and became a proof of concept that eventually led to the new Sustainable Food Systems bachelor’s degree that launched under CFIT. Two new master’s degree programs — an M.S. in Food Safety and an M.S. in Food Innovation & Technology — were also recently launched through the College of Online Education, now the College of Professional Studies.

Lewis helped develop the Sustainable Food Systems degree, and notes that it is designed to prepare students to understand the social and moral implications of our food systems. In one of the major’s core courses, Sustainability and the Culinary Kitchen, Lewis helps students explore the physical landscape of food production. “I take them out on boats in Narragansett Bay and visit farms,” he says. Students meet their food sources face-to-face, then invite them to a lunch based on their ingredients. “They’re learning about creating community and partnerships, and how to operate in a food system, whether it’s our system in Rhode Island or it’s theirs back home.”

Reflection on community impact is a key part of the course, which also examines business management. “Are you offering employees fair wages, good labor practices, and career opportunities?” says Lewis. “Are you chewing them up, abusing and using them, or are you building them up to be bigger, better at what they want to do and achieve their personal goals?” Community support can have a wider lens, too: Lewis offers the example of the Providence restaurant north, owned by James Mark ’08, which has long made it a practice to round up every check and give that excess to a food bank.

Sourcing is another moral issue the class weighs, says Lewis. You have to consider where your food is coming from and who is affected by its production, as well as the environmental impacts of your sourcing and opportunities to offset your carbon footprint. “Then you have the sustainable development piece,” says Lewis, focused on achieving goals while creating a net-positive impact on the local community. Finally, there is the political element, which includes advocacy and support for local food and regional supply chains. “If you’re a global company, are you sourcing sustainably and worried about those supply chains?” Says Lewis.

Considering the implications and opportunities of all of this can be emotional for students, he notes. “At the end of the semester, some students are literally crying,” says Lewis. “Students will say, ‘Chef, this has totally changed the way I think about food. It added a morality to my cooking that didn’t exist. I now have an identity as a chef and what I stand for that didn’t exist before your class.’”

Which is just the kind of transformational learning that Lewis says CFIT is after. “As a faculty member, all you can do is set the environment,” he says. You have to create a fertile environment — onboard a fishing boat in Narragansett Bay or picking blueberries in a local field — that will help students find their own distinct path. “They come out as a new critical adaptive thinker and learner who is self-reflective. That’s something that you just can’t teach, but you can set conditions for it.”

Chef Branden Lewis during a Chef’s Table

Chef Branden Lewis during a Chef’s Table event at JWU Providence. Photo: Mike Cohea

Educating Innovative Problem-Solvers

Autumn Lomas ’22 grew up in Sonora, California, surrounded by a community of farmers. They taught her how to garden, and all that goes into growing food. “It helps you cherish food as well, because you understand how much effort was put into it,” she says.

JWU appealed to Lomas because of its experiential emphasis: CFIT trains students to understand industry trends and immerses them with research projects and partnerships. Lomas is a senior nutrition and dietetics honors student, and is in the midst of a project designed to study what is inspiring the greater diversity of seed types offered in American grocery stores. “I wanted to see if — when people began getting more involved in what they’re eating — it inspired grocery stores to diversify the vegetable variety.”

To do that, Lomas is reaching out to community gardens in California, asking them to survey their members: “What is it that you’re growing? Why did you choose them? Is it because you’re interested in a more environmental footprint or because you’re more interested in something that’s food for your family?” Lomas wants to understand what is inspiring their choices.

After that, Lomas will call seed companies to find out what the top seeds were that sold in the last year to see if it’s a direct correlation between the two. She’ll also talk to grocery markets in California to figure out which new vegetable varieties they might be offering, how they choose them, and what influences their choices. She wants to discover what is driving the change and the potential impact of those ripples.

This kind of work on real-world food issues, says Delle Donne, is what separates CFIT’s approach from other schools. It’s what has helped JWU build on strong culinary roots but claim the mantle as a comprehensive industry-forward university. “We’re working on experiential education. It’s not a do as I say,” he notes. “We give them the research, we give them the tools from the beginning to really think on their feet, to be problem solvers and change agents.” That kind of skillset is marketable across all parts of the food economy. “In my position, I get to work with the constituencies on the outside of JWU, and they tell me all the time that they love JWU students for their critical thinking skills.”

That’s a crucial feature of the curriculum, says Evans. “All of our students and programs have extensive lab time,” he notes. Naturally, those labs look different for Culinary Nutrition, Culinary Science, and Culinary Arts students. “But at the end of the day, what all of those spaces have to facilitate is creativity, right? It has to be problem-based: Here’s the situation, fix it.”

That focus on fixing things became increasingly germane during the pandemic. “When you talk about the evolution of CFIT and the pandemic, it’s serendipitous,” says Delle Donne. The whole food system was completely disrupted and sorely in need of solutions, and CFIT is designed to be a place where students come to develop answers. “Come to JWU, come to CFIT, be a problem solver so that after you graduate, you can say, ‘You know what? I put my fingerprints all over this solution to the food-and-beverage industry.’”

There are so many deep cracks in the system that were revealed during the pandemic, says Evans.

In pre-COVID-19 times, there was an expectation that when you walked into your local grocery store, everything would be in stock, fresh and affordable. “The convenience of that drowns out some of the externalities and hidden costs that the system engenders,” says Evans. “And then you had a shock like COVID-19 that disrupts the system, because it’s not resilient.”

Dean Evans and Associate Professor Branden Lewis at Gilded Tomato Farm.

Dean Evans and Associate Professor Branden Lewis at Gilded Tomato Farm. Photo: Mike Cohea

The plant shutdowns, the supply issues — the vulnerabilities the pandemic revealed — were disconcerting. There are too few firms controlling the systems, the corn and soybean producers are all using the same genetics, all the vegetables and fruits are grown in the same small regions of California, says Evans. It’s all too fragile. “You have one natural shock, one biological shock, one cyberattack, one economic shock … and it’s all gone,” says Evans.

But that’s where the CFIT problem solvers come in, ready to help enact systemic change. “Our alumni can be anywhere in that supply chain,” says Lewis, adding that they could be chefs, growers or product innovators. “They could be people who advocate for companies or food systems, or work in the government creating regulations, or work with public health — those food jobs are innumberable.”

Partnerships have been critical to helping students understand the breadth of opportunities, says Evans. For example, an effort underway at the Charlotte Campus to create heart-healthy recipes for the nearby Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute or working with Ecolab on food safety internships. “Students will take those type of exercises more seriously and feel more worthwhile about them if they are real — if they’re coming from an organization, a business, a nonprofit or a hospital that has a problem and needs food expertise to solve it.

“By the time they’re done here, we want them to be able to map out a problem, understand its key ingredients and begin to think through solutions,” he adds. “If you leave knowing how to communicate that problem and break it down so that you can use it to imagine solutions, there’s nothing you can’t do.”

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