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Course will challenge students’ perceptions of food systems

The path food takes from soil to table, and the hands and systems through which it passes, are a mystery to many Americans who purchase their groceries in supermarkets.

A new course to be offered in the fall in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 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.

Kathryn J. Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS, said that when Cornell was established in 1865, most Americans either grew up on a farm or had family members who lived on a farm, which offered them direct insight 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,” Boor said. “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.”

The course will satisfy a physical and life sciences credit for social science students; for other science students, the course will count as a humanities credit. The course is not a requirement for all students.

“Just Food” is designed to challenge students from different disciplines on some of the food world’s biggest controversies, 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 and Ithaca are surrounded by farmers and producers. As part of the course, Rossi said students and instructors will explore 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 and will show the importance of blending social science with physical sciences, he said. The instructors will cover issues along the full food system – from production and distribution to environmental 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 [modern agriculture] 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,” he said. “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.”

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 leave 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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Lindsey Hadlock