Though agricultural education at the university level goes back to President Abe Lincoln's signing of the land-grant mission in 1862, urbanization and the resulting curiosity and fascination with food and food production have created the opportunity for new and different types of degree programs to emerge.
Adams State University in Southern Colorado, a four-year liberal arts college at Alamosa, is launching an entirely new undergraduate degree, centered on food and health, that is designed to prepare students for a wide range of related careers, including food prep, marketing, advocacy and education.
At the Pikes Peak Foodshed Forum in late February, Margaret Doell, associate director of academic affairs at Adams State, announced the new food studies program would begin accepting enrollments this fall.
"It's been under development for three years now, so this is really exciting for us," she said.
Designed as an interdisciplinary program that cuts across several departments on campus, Doell said the goal is to cultivate "an understanding of food and food systems, locally and globally, with a significant hands-on component consisting of both labs and applied learning."
The program is practical but also aspirational. Doell said administrators hope to empower students to become change-makers in their communities, with a heightened regard for improving health and wellness.
Nikki Kasper, who has been hired as the program's first full-time instructor, will teach several core classes in food, which will be combined with courses in other departments that were recommended by a food industry advisory board.
"Most people learn the required skills and knowledge while on the job." she said. "In our program, people will work hands-on with food, such as gardening, food prep and planning menus, and that's not currently incorporated in a lot of programs.
"Another huge thing we learned is that small business management is super-important for anyone who works in food, and I think that will be a unique part of our program, too."
Communication courses will feature prominently, along with more esoteric offerings like biogeography, race, culture and ethnicity, and "sociological imagination."
Students will have the opportunity to choose from four different tracks: sustainability, business and food policy, social justice or health and wellness.
"Everybody will get a little bit of each of them but will specialize in one of those tracks," she said.
In addition, all students will be required to complete two internships and one capstone project.
The college will incorporate use of a new campus garden initiated by students three years ago and collaborate with local food and farm leaders in the San Luis Valley, including the Valley Roots Food Hub, Locavores restaurant, Gosar Farms, Rockey Farms and others.
"We are looking forward to building more relationships with growers in the valley," Doell said. "We feel like this is a great place to embark on a project like this."
Kasper previously worked with the San Luis Valley Local Food Coalition to expand farm-to-school purchasing at 14 area districts, so she understands the challenges associated with sourcing food locally.
Nanna Meyer, health sciences associate professor and founder of a similarly diverse and unique sport nutrition graduate program at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, was thrilled by Adam State's announcement.
She hopes that some of the program's initial graduates will consider going on to UCCS to earn graduate degrees.
Meyer's graduate nutrition program, housed under the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, is far broader than traditional dietary training programs and includes on-campus food production and preparation training, and food literacy activities in the broader community, such as the annual multi-day "grain school," which covers everything from wheat breeding to baking and brewing.
Under her leadership, grad students also helped start a series of field trials to identify locally adapted heritage grains, including ancient corn varieties with brightly colored kernels and fanciful names like Glass Gem, San Felipe and Rio Grande Blue.
The program teaches students to cook these rare and unusual ingredients using traditional methods, such as sprouting and fermentation. It also draws a connection between modern agriculture's lack of bio-diversity and loss of dietary quality, and encourages seed saving, seasonal eating and more consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
In the last couple of years, the program has devoted considerable time and resources to looking for ways to expand farm-to-institution purchasing throughout Colorado. Students have been engaged in gathering research, putting together documentaries and compiling a cookbook to accompany that goal.
The warm relationship between Adams State and UCCS is part of a broader movement among local food advocates to expand collaboration across Southern Colorado. Now that food hubs in the San Luis and Arkansas valleys have merged into Tap Root Cooperative, a cohesive effort to deliver food to the Front Range, Meyer said there is growing awareness of the potential for other ways to share expertise, support and resources.
"Local food is no longer about the miles involved," she said. "It's more about supporting our bio-region and the farming communities that exist out in the rural places."