Zucker was one of a handful of professors using food-related content in their classes and Cardona took notice. He formed an exploratory committee in 2013 with several Hostos professors as well as community actors and academics from other institutions. The new program is the result of two years of research and a pilot semester of classes, which ended in May.
Big agriculture was the most popular topic among Zucker’s students this past semester.
“The topic of agriculture and social justice is relevant to students' lives since it has to do with what they eat, and how they are taken advantage of,” said Zucker. Students in the class read the works of Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben and Cathrine Sneed, among others.
As a requirement of her classes, Zucker supervises the students in the farmers market, which they run on campus once a month. She secures donations from area retailers and even Hunts Point Market on occasion. And the students practice their writing skills by creating handouts about the agroindustry and processed foods.
It was this class that spawned the interdisciplinary associate’s degree program, which will start with Introduction to Food Studies and Botany of Food. It will then branch off into tracks: food policy, health and nutrition, environment and sustainability, and social justice. About half of the classes needed for the program are already available at the college, while the rest are currently under development and slated to be lead by new faculty members who the college will hire on a rolling basis as the first class progresses through the program.
When the program starts in the the fall, it will be the first of its kind in the country. Kristin Reynolds, who will be teaching two sections of Intro to Food Studies and leads similar courses at The New School in Manhattan, surveyed existing offerings across the country to help Hostos design the program. Community colleges, including Hostos often have programs that are more vocational in nature, focusing on fields such as hospitality, agriculture, and the culinary arts. Though a number of four-year institutions have launched similar programs, Reynolds found no other two-year institutions taking a liberal arts approach to food studies.
But perhaps unlike their counterparts in Manhattan, when Hostos students learn about the dominance and harms of processed food and the prevalence of food deserts, they are part of the statistics. Two-thirds of Hostos students live in the Bronx and even more live in low-income households.
Reynolds cites in her research that academic and media conversations about food insecurity in urban communities of color often lack voices from those communities.
“A lot of the academic writing about food activism and a lot of the media writing about food activism focuses on white people,” said Reynolds. For example, in a 2010 New York Magazine article that profiled seven up-and-coming urban farmers, six of them white. Yet most of New York’s roughly 1000 urban farmers are people of color. “The face of this movement looks like white middle-class people, and that's problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are actually many people of color who are leading change and have been for a long time.” Reynolds has co-authored a forthcoming book illustrating this phenomenon called Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City.