The questions surrounding food systems come from a variety of different angles. As food makes its way from soil to mouth, the issues that it intersects with are scientific, environmental, social, economic and political.

A new food studies program at the University of Southern Maine aims to teach students how to tackle this full range of questions facing food systems using an interdisciplinary approach.

“If we’re thinking about the food system as not just the food on our plate but what goes into the food on our plate, we have all sorts of questions that we need to ask,” said Kristin Reynolds, visiting professor of food studies at USM. “The strength of this interdisciplinary approach enables us to really look deeply into the whole of the system rather than taking just one part.”

The new program began at the start of USM’s spring semester in January, with over 90 students enrolling in the five food studies courses being offered. With the new program, students can now receive a minor in food studies. As the program grows in the next year, the program’s executive director, Michael Hillard, said a graduate certificate program will be developed along with a large internship program starting this fall.

Hillard, a longtime economics professor at USM, was the driving force behind bringing a food studies program to USM. Over two years ago, the University of Maine System was reorganizing the focuses of each of its seven schools, and as the system’s southernmost campus, USM was seeking out ways to establish itself as the state’s metropolitan university.

As someone who values Maine’s farmers markets and local food offerings himself, Hillard saw that the local food movement and food system issues were becoming of increased interest to the millennial generation of students that he was teaching.

“I could just see at that point the notion of trying to tap into a local food movement. It provides a great opportunity for the university to play its part in the whole thing,” Hillard said. “USM needs to stay current, [USM] needs to be connected to the community, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for that.”

In the fall of 2014, Hillard began talking with players in Maine’s local food sector, from business to nonprofit organizations, to get a sense for the movement in Maine ― ultimately bringing in a food studies consultant to help him form the academic proposal for the program. Last year, USM secured funding from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, and the program food studies program was able to take shape.

As an economist, what struck Hillard about food studies was the number of different academic disciplines that play into studying and understanding the food system. Questions about production and food quality require a scientific or environmental answer. Questions about distribution and farm equity require an economic answer. Questions about policies that affect farms and food access require a political science answer.

The food studies program at USM aims to equip students with the academic understanding to critically analyze and address these questions by having a curriculum that uses theories from several disciplines.

“Food studies is the idea that you’ll study these varying perspectives from science to social science or humanities, integrate [that knowledge] into the understanding of the problems facing the food system, and then see where and how you can apply this knowledge practically,” Hillard said.

This semester, USM has two visiting faculty supporting the food studies program, Reynolds and Ardis Cameron. The food studies courses being offered include: Introduction to Food Systems; Food, Power and Social Justice; Food and the Environment; Food: History, Culture, Politics; and New England Foodscapes.

The New England Foodscapes course is a collaboration between USM and the Maine Historical Society. The course is made up of a series of lectures ranging from topics such as sustainability, food waste and fisheries. The lectures, held at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, also are open to the public.

Next year, the program will sponsor 25 paid internships for students minoring in food studies. In developing the food studies program, Hillard formed contacts with a slew of Maine food organizations from Maine Farmland Trust to Good Shepherd Food Bank. With the internship aspect of the program, students will be able to work with organizations such as these applying their classroom instruction in the field.

“For [the students], they’ll be able to take what they’re learning in the classroom, in terms of the big theory, and then apply it to a professional area and take it right into the community,” Hillard said.

Another unique aspect of the USM program is the inter-system collaboration with the University of Maine. While there is no interdisciplinary food studies program per se at UMaine, the flagship university has robust agriculture and food science programs. As the USM program grows, Hillard said the goal is to have an articulation agreement with UMaine and Kennebec Valley Community College, where USM students will be able to take sustainable agriculture courses at these two institutions to add to their food studies education.

At USM, selecting a minor is required for graduation. With the availability of the new food studies program, Hillard said that allowing students to complement their majors with a firm understanding of our food system can lead to careers in various realms from entrepreneurship to advocacy.

“We have a big issue in the state over the next 30 years, which is how do we build a 21st century food economy that is sustainable, local and just,” he said. “We will be putting the leaders in place for that over the coming years, and I’m really excited to be able to do this.”