Difficult times often bring clarity. As it turns out, COVID-19 is making visible the vulnerabilities and inequities inherent in our dominant, industrialized food system. The conditions of food and farm workers have been fully revealed to the nation. The “just enough, just in time” supply chain model threatens many communities with food shortages. Market disruption is jeopardizing the viability of farmers, food producers and restaurants.

At this point, it’s becoming clear to most folks that food is critically tied to the well-being of our economy, our society, and our planet as a whole. How we grow and process our food, how we access it (or can’t), how our food and farm workers are treated, and our food and agricultural policies – all are central to our health and to the security of the places we live.

As a long-time Athens resident. I am deeply grateful to be living in a community that has spent the last 40 years committed to cooperative food localization strategies. While the restrictions imposed by stay-at-home orders have seriously strained our local food system, we are better poised than many places. Working cooperatively with citizens, those in the food system are pivoting to establish creative distribution channels using values-based value chains to keep people working, businesses open and people fed. My sincere thanks go to the many people who have been engaged in these efforts.

As a food systems scholar, I try to focus on opportunities for change that can be found within the extraordinary challenges presented by COVID-19. What is happening in the food system here is certainly one bright spot. I wish I could say the same for what has recently occurred at Ohio University with regard to the announcement to terminate the Food Studies program. 

At the exact moment when the eyes of the world are focused on the need to create a more resilient, just and sustainable food system, the opportunity for OU to become a leader in this critical field of study is being missed. Yet, the groundwork has been aptly laid. Dr. Theresa Moran has worked for many years to create a strong foundation for a food systems degree program. Terminated by an interim dean citing a lack of budget streams, her classes are full, with increasing student demand. In a matter of days, 1,800 signatures were collected on the student-organized petition, “Save Food Studies at OU.”  

Through her work as director of the Food Studies Theme, Dr. Moran created a Food and Society certificate program and inspired faculty across many departments to become involved. Under her guidance, students formed a dynamic organization called “Food Matters,” and the OHIO Student Farm initiated a student-run produce business based on a social enterprise model where revenue supports student interns.

The community food systems internship program has seen 51 internship placements in the community since 2014. Dr. Moran developed six interdisciplinary Food Studies courses and five study-away programs in Sicily, Ecuador, Cuba, and one here in Athens County. These statistics are a testament to the interest of OU students in acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to be leaders in the field of food systems and to colleagues wanting to foster experiential and interdisciplinary teaching.  

Dr. Moran has facilitated a diverse university and community network. Working with Community Food Initiatives and Rural Action, she was awarded four years of Sugar Bush Foundation grant funding. She and her community partners established the Farm to OHIO Working Group to expand OU’s purchasing of local food, providing a healthy advantage for students as well as a boost to the local food economy.

This type of cooperative strategy is in keeping with OU’s commitment to engagement in the region. The Food Studies Theme has sponsored many accomplished thought leaders in the field, such as Dr. Vandana Shiva, Anna Lappé and Frances Moore Lappé, Sandor Katz, and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Gary Nabhan, to come to Ohio University. They have offered classes and lectures that have enriched the university community as well as the citizens of the region.

As an OU alumna, I am saddened by the myopia of those who fail to see the benefits of providing students with an education in food systems, especially given how the university is poised for success in this regard. Ohio University has everything to gain by reversing their decision.

It’s no secret in higher education that the study of food systems is a growing area of interest for students. As an interdisciplinary course of study at OU, students would have the opportunity to draw upon the excellence of many departments and faculty expertise while also acquiring the analytical, theoretical and hands-on skills to prepare them for a wide range of careers in the public and private sectors. Not least of all, the advantage of embedding experiential learning opportunities within a rich and nationally recognized Athens food system is extraordinary.

What we do know at this point is between the challenges of climate change and the social and economic upheaval presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the task of creating a livable future will fall to young people. In a complex world, where food is inextricably connected to economic, environmental, social and political systems, there is a responsibility to offer students exceptional educational experiences that will empower them to create a more resilient and just future. The study of sustainable food systems is at the very heart of what can bring about that transformation. OU needs to keep Dr. Moran and Food Studies.

Editor’s note: Lisa Trocchia received a Ph.D. from Ohio University and is an associate faculty member in the online graduate program in Sustainable Food Systems at Prescott College. She lives in Athens.

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