Eats 101: exemplary or unattainable?

A story I wrote for Carolina Eats

If you talk to students, guest speakers and outsiders about Eats 101, you’ll hear the same thing over and over again.

The class, formally “Honors Seminar in Food and Culture,” is different from other classes at UNC-Chapel Hill. One former student called it “legendary and semi-mythic.”

Many say it’s experiential education at its finest— with dinners at the Biltmore Estate, wandering lectures through St. John of the Divine in New York City, trips to San Francisco, stacks of reading and intense, probing discussions.

Eats 101 is a “model interdisciplinary” course, covering food’s role in health, religion, culture and the environment, said James Leloudis, associate dean for Honors Carolina.

Yet even a model class has its limits. Demand for the class far exceeds supply. Roughly 15 students take the class per year, but the wait list is extensive — most students I talked to first applied as freshman and were accepted into the class as seniors.

It’s also a course that couldn’t exist without outside funding.

Honors Carolina provides some money to defray the costs of travel, Leloudis said, but the “extra” learning experiences (the trips and dinners that many former students said made the class) are funded by Professor Jim Ferguson.

“A pioneering course”

Food studies, or at least a concern with food issues, has become ubiquitous at UNC-CH. First there are the classes: Eats 101, Carolina Eats Carolina Cooks, Agriculture and the Environment, Agriculture, Food and Society and more. Then there’s the student groups: Fair Local OrganicSonder MarketCarolina Campus Community Garden, and even Carolina Eats.

And finally, Carolina went all in, making “food” its two-year campus wide theme.

Eats 101, while holding a special mythic place within the food ecosystem at Chapel Hill, might not seem that innovative.

Except that Eats 101 did it first.

Former Honors Carolina Associate Dean Bobby Allen asked Ferguson to start a course on food in 1995.

At first, Ferguson protested, saying that social psychology was his field, not food.

“He (Allen) said, ‘But I know a lot of people, and you know the most about food of anyone I’ve ever run across,’” Ferguson said.

So Eats 101 started in 1997 as an experiment. An experiment that launched food studies as a serious academic field at UNC-CH, Leloudis said.

“Late 90s food studies was really just beginning as an academic endeavor,” he said. “This really was a pioneering course, right there at the leading edge.”

Students can now double major in the interdisciplinary Food Agriculture and Sustainable Development, an outgrowth of Eats 101.

When he first started the class, the syllabus was one page, Ferguson said. Now, the class covers more and more topics, with a syllabus that has grown to 18 pages.

“Really, there’s no way to stop it,” Ferguson said. “One of the things that’s really cool is how exciting this whole field is becoming.”

“The highest standards”

James McWilliams, author of “Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly,” started visiting the Eats 101 class in 2010.

He’s gone back a few times since, challenging students on the ethics of eating and killing animals.

Williams, a history professor at Texas State University San Marcos, has been in higher education for more than 20 years. But he said Eats 101 is the most impressive course he’s ever seen.

Higher education is moving away from small, rigorous classes. But Eats 101 has “dug in its heels,” he said.

“It’s inspiring to see what higher education can accomplish,” he said.

The class starts with “how to ask questions,” Eats 101 teaching assistant Samantha Buckner Terhune said. From there, the class dives into food studies through multiple viewpoints and guest speakers (it’s a “prism,” Ferguson said.) Finally, each student writes a final research paper.

“Our goal is for the kids to think differently, and maybe critically, about food than they ever have before,” Buckner Terhune said. “Our goal is not to promote any one thing but to promote a broader, overall understanding of food.”

UNC-CH American Studies Professor Joy Kasson has led Eats 101 in discussions about the intersection of food, art and feminism for the last ten years.

The class’s constant shifting and “re-envisioning” sets it class apart, she said.

“Jim is so interested in so many topics,” Kasson said. “He keeps thinking, that’s why he’s such a creative and inspiring teacher.”

Many former students of Eats 101 called the class the best class they took at Carolina.

Blake O’Connor, a Robertson scholar who graduated in May 2014, took the class in fall 2013. He first heard about it from friends his freshman year and was told that if he didn’t apply by his second semester he would never get in.

But he did — the fall semester of his senior year.

“It was by far the most enriching academic experience I had in college,” he said.

Kelsey Kessler, who took the class the same semester, applied as soon as she started UNC-CH.

“I heard it was really competitive, a lot of people were Moreheads and Robertsons and that kind of scared me away,” she said.

She was contacted by Buckner Terhune as a senior and called the class, “the best experience I had in Chapel Hill.”

Ferguson said the abundance of scholars is coincidental. Though he did emphasis it wasn’t just Morehead-Cains and Robertsons.

“We have an abundance of class presidents too, by the way,” Ferguson said. “We’ve had like seven.”

There is a word-of-mouth element to the class, with friends telling friends to apply, and apply early. Still, Ferguson said he tries to keep clumps of friends from coming in together.

“We want students who will create a diverse mixture,” Buckner Terhune said. “We look for more than people who say they’re foodies or that they love to eat.”

Both Leloudis and Ferguson said the current rolling waiting-list system means “not too many” students who apply are turned away.

It just might take a couple of years.

“It’s very hard to compare”

O’Connor said Eats 101 was effective because it used experiences, not just lectures and discussion, to teach.

“Usually when you take a class, it stays in the lines,” he said. “This class was more morphous.”

Eats 101 has taken students on trips to New York, Asheville and San Francisco, and hosted countless class dinners. The current Eats 101 class traveled to Asheville and New York City.

“Jim is incredibly generous and makes sure the class is accessible to anyone — most things are taken care of by him,” current student Nikita Shamdasani said in an email.

Many students said these experiences led to greater depth of learning and community building. But it is also impossible to scale up.

“That can’t happen in other classes, granted UNC is very limited in it’s resources,” O’Connor said.

Universities are increasingly relying on private funds to support undergraduate learning, Leloudis said. However, he said Ferguson’s gift and the class itself is “unusual” at UNC-CH.

“I think its often easy to look at the meals and the trips and think, ‘Oh this is just about going and eating out,’” Leloudis said. “But that could not be further from accurate. Those meals are learning and teaching exercises.”

O’Connor also recognized the tendency to see Eats 101 as “unattainable.”

Stefanie Schwemlein, a Robertson scholar who took the class in fall 2012, said that people tend to think of the class as “super elitist.”

Eats 101 students discuss food issues affecting low-income populations, but do so while eating food that is simply out of reach for those populations.

“We found it really difficult to be talking about food deserts and running out of food supplies while dining opulently,” Schwemlein said.

Schwemlein said her class eventually came to an understanding that the lifestyle of Eats 101 was a temporary one, and that, “if we don’t change something about our food system soon, no one can experience food in the way we did.”

O’Connor also called experiencing fine dining while talking about macro-food concerns, “uncomfortable.”

“The typical Carolina student is more solutions oriented. People would come up with solutions and they weren’t really feasible,” he said. “It’s not really realistic for everyone.”

“This is not a foie gras and caviar class”

Ferguson said he wouldn’t describe the class or food as “high-end,” but just very particular about sourcing. The class visits creameries, farmers markets and beef operations to see what it takes to produce the food they’re eating, he said.

“This is not a foie gras and caviar class,” Ferguson said. “There is always tension in any system where there is a disequilibrium.”

The class attempts to bring people closer to issues they’re already passionate about, while expanding their ways of thinking about food policy, Ferguson said.

“We have so many people going to Africa and Southeast Asia and South America. But you want to say, ‘Wait a minute, Appalachia is in tough shape too,’” Ferguson said. “So food justice is something we talk about in class.”

Brendan Yorke, a Morehead-Cain scholar who took the class in spring 2013, said a diversity of experience is crucial when talking about food, which crosses all socioeconomic divides.

Yet the class naturally tends to favor privileged perspectives with an application focused on extracurricular leadership, he said.

If you have to work through college, gaining leadership experience is a lot harder, he said. The class itself, which requires a large time and work commitment, would be difficult to take while working.

O’Connor said that while the class had students from many majors and interests, it could have been more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.

Patrick Healy, who took the class in fall 2013, said his class was “pretty much as vanilla as it gets.”

Still, O’Connor and Yorke said that the class has been trending toward more diverse perspectives.

O’Connor said there were rumors that his class, in fall 2013, was selected differently, with less emphasis on traditional leadership experience.

“I didn’t expect my classmates to be so curious and genuinely interested,” he said.  “More weight went into our experiences with food.”

Ferguson said there was a shift toward more tangible food experience but that like the class as a whole, it was not “a deliberate binary shift, but evolutionary over time.”

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