Dual major integrates sustainable agriculture, hospitality management, and nutrition

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Grace Stott ‘20 always valued sustainability, but couldn’t figure out how to incorporate it into her college career. Then she discovered EcoGastronomy and paired it with her nutrition major. 

“It was the perfect blend for my love of healthy living and sustainable food,” Stott said. “I found my true passion. Without a food system that works well, we can’t meet everyone’s basic need to eat.”  

She certainly wasn’t the first to think so – 163 graduates from 31 different majors across UNH have opted to complement their fields of study with a deeper understanding of sustainable food systems in the past 10 years. By studying the convergence of agriculture, the environment and the myriad of social, economic, political and ethical issues associated with food production and eating, many have gone on to careers that combine their values with their passions. 

“It's not about trying to convince people to do something or not do something. It’s about helping them understand what’s going on in our food system."

The seeds for the EcoGastronomy program were initially planted in May 2006 when UNH signed the Slow Food Agreements of Intentions and Collaborations “for the purpose of creating a worldwide network of universities and research institutions linked to the International Slow Food Association.” These principles include “protection of agricultural biodiversity,” “support of the rights of peoples to self-determination with regard to food,” and “education of civilized society and training of workers in the food and agricultural sector.” UNH is one of ten universities in the U.S. to have signed the principles, and the first to award the founder of Slow Food — Carlo Petrini — an honorary degree. All of this got people thinking: what if there was a degree program at UNH the reflected these values? 

Two years later, the board of trustees approved the dual major, making it the first of its kind at any university in the country. When UNH’s EcoGastronomy program launched in 2010, it encompassed a one-of-a-kind learning experience linking the fields of sustainable agriculture, hospitality and nutrition, as well as a partnership between Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics and the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture in collaboration with the Sustainability Institute. 

Despite a decade leading the program, senior lecturer and program director Daniel Winans is still pretty used to answering one major question from interested students: what exactly does EcoGastronomy mean? 

Officially, the term “gastronomy” is defined as the “art and appreciation of preparing and eating good food.” The program then pairs the word with the prefix “eco” to reflect a focus on sustainability. Through six core course offerings and a myriad of qualifying elective courses, students begin to understand how food is produced, transported, and consumed, and all the affects those processes have on humans and the environment. They are asked to consider the choices being made along the way by farmers, companies and consumers – especially themselves. 

“It's not about trying to convince people to do something or not do something. It’s about helping them understand what’s going on in our food system,” Winans explained. “Would you rather be blissfully ignorant, eating a food that maybe really goes against your moral or ethical beliefs? Or would you rather know and be able to adjust your behavior to fit what you believe? I don’t teach the ‘right’ way to eat or what a ‘perfect’ food system is. It’s more about exploring those questions and understanding that there are choices.” 

As a dual major program, EcoGastronomy must be completed alongside another major at UNH, making a multidisciplinary approach one of the program’s core pillars. Some of the most common major pairings are nutrition, hotel and hospitality administration and sustainable agriculture and food systems. But students from departments such as music, psychology, economics and art have also participated – meaning no one ever really knows what diverse interests might influence course conversations. 

A cornerstone of the program’s success is also its dedication to experiential learning. Winans brings guest speakers to the introductory course each week, and requires students to complete activities where they’re engaging with people involved in some aspect of the food system. Popular choices tend to be going to a farmer’s market to chat with vendors, touring a farm on campus, or even volunteering at the local soup kitchen or food pantry to better understand how food reaches those in need. 

“It’s meant to give students the opportunity to really connect with something they’re interested in,” Winans said. “Our parents, or maybe our grandparents, had a lot more firsthand interaction with producing, harvesting and preserving food. It’s a part of the system many students have had less and less opportunities to engage with these days.” 

This encouragement to learn about local issues often inspires students to leave a lasting impact on surrounding communities.  UNH’s very own MUB Market, a farmer’s market held in the Granite State Room each semester that brings dozens of vendors to campus, was actually the result of five EcoGastronomy students’ capstone in the 2017-2018 academic year. Stott’s project involved designing and implementing a nutrition education program at the Strafford County Department of Corrections. 

All students who declare the dual major also get to spend a semester abroad at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Ascoli Piceno, Italy. 

“It was incredible. Definitely the highlight of my life,” Stott said about her study abroad experience. “I learned and experienced so much, and I think about it very, very fondly. I think it’s so important to have that international component and get to see how other countries run their food systems and treat their food.” 

Winans hopes his students retain an appreciation for how their food gets to their plates and an urge to ask questions about the process throughout their lives. 

“My hope for students is that they continue to ask questions and learn more about food, long after they’ve graduated,” Winans said. “Obviously I would love it if some of them dedicated their lives to helping improve our food system–and some of them have!–but if people are at least asking questions, that will help move us closer to a more positive, sustainable way of life.”