Paulette Goddard Professor, Steinhardt Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health
Professor of Sociology, Arts & Science
Nestle says teaching her first nutrition class was like falling in love. Fifteen years after she founded the country’s first master’s degree program in food studies at NYU, her passion for the subject is stronger than ever.
Photo: Lou Manna
By Kristine Jannuzzi (CAS ’98)
Well before food studies was established as an academic discipline, Marion Nestle recognized that food is a versatile and accessible medium to teach students just about anything. But when she founded the country’s first master’s degree program devoted to food scholarship at NYU in 1996, even she could not have predicted the incredible expansion of the field over the past 15 years. Today, food studies programs have spread to institutions across the US, and Nestle is one of the country’s foremost authorities on nutrition and public policy. From her monthly column in the San Francisco Chronicle, to appearances on TV shows such as The Colbert Report, to her over 75,000 Twitter followers (she made Time magazine’s list of the 140 Best Twitter Feeds earlier this year), Nestle is a force to be reckoned with in the food world and beyond. She is the author of Food Politics and What to Eat, and her latest book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, is due out next March. She recently spoke to Connect about how she came to be a trailblazer in the field of food studies and what issues in food politics she is most concerned about today.
How did you first become interested in food and nutrition?
I’ve always liked to eat and that’s reason enough. I wanted to study food in college, but really there were very few options. You could go to an agricultural school and study agriculture, but I’m a city girl – I didn’t get agriculture at all. Or you could be a dietetics major. I went to Berkeley as a dietetics major and I lasted exactly one day – that was not going to work. The classes were not rigorous enough…they seemed kind of “home-ec-y,” which wasn’t what I came to college to do. So I eventually drifted into science, which I was really interested in, and I didn’t get back into food until I was given a nutrition course to teach in my first teaching job at Brandeis. And that was like falling in love, so I’ve never looked back.
How did you come to teach that first nutrition course?
I was in the biology department at Brandeis, and I was teaching cell and molecular biology, which is very abstract and difficult to teach. The department had a rule that you could only teach the same course three years in a row and after that, you had to teach anything that the department needed – whether you knew anything about it or not – because you had a PhD and you knew more than freshmen did. So my three years of cell and molecular biology were up, and they gave me a choice of nutrition or physiology, and I picked nutrition. On the first day I started preparing the course, I thought it was so exciting – so interesting and so accessible. When you talk to students about cell biology, they have to have the ability to think very abstractly because you can’t see anything, but everybody understands food, and I thought, gee, this is a wonderful way to teach biology. In fact, I can’t think of any better way to teach the principles of biology than through food and nutrition. As it turns out, you can teach anything through food and nutrition for the same reason, because it’s extremely accessible and everybody gets it.
And everybody likes it!
Well, yeah! You know, in the lab you can eat your results. One of our lab experiments in the biology class was to dissect squid and eat them. It’s a Jewish university – eating squid was a little problematic [for those who kept Kosher], but there were people who were willing to try sautéed lab squid.
What was your next step?
I taught nutrition for a couple of years. I had a class of about 50 that first time, and about 20 of them wanted to go on with it because they found it so exciting. And since they were teaching me as much as I was teaching them, I ran another semester of it. Then I moved to the medical school in San Francisco to teach nutrition to medical students and I did that for the next eight years.
What eventually attracted you to NYU?
Well, I got a job here. I went to Washington in between, and the world of Washington divides into two categories: people who like Washington better than New York and people who like New York better than Washington. I found out within minutes that I was in the wrong place, so I started looking for a job in New York almost as soon as I got to Washington. And about a year and half later, in 1988, this job at NYU came up…there were lots of people who knew I was looking for a job in New York. I must have had 20 copies of the ad coming in by mail with a note on it saying, “Marion, here’s your job.” So I applied for it and got it.
How did you decide formally establish the food studies program at NYU?
First of all, we were home economics and nutrition, and the reason I was hired was to bring the department into the 20th, if not the 21st, century. That meant doing something about home economics…and over the next five years eliminating the programs that we weren’t doing well and playing to the strengths of what was being done well. And also cleaning up the department’s environment, which was a mess…it was a long, slow process. We changed the name of the department several times during that period…Eventually, the administration decided that Steinhardt’s hotel management program ought to go into the School of Continuing Education, which had its own program…The dean at the time, Ann Marcus, called me in and asked me how I felt about the transfer, because the hotel program brought in a million dollars a year in tuition, so it was going to be a huge income loss for the department. I said it depended on what I would get. And she, being an excellent administrator, said, “What do you want?” And without even knowing where it came from, I told her I wanted to start a program in food studies. I had been travelling with a group of academics, food writers, and chefs, and I was talking to people about how they wished they could study about food. So I said I wanted a faculty position and a new kitchen, because we had a 1950s home economics kitchen. And she got all that accomplished, and we built this really quite wonderful kitchen on the 10th floor.
I should say that with the permission to go forward, I needed help, and a food consultant, Clark Wolf, advised me all the way through. He was an excellent advisor and he set up an advisory committee who kind of told us what to do and wrote a report that was very impressive to the dean. We went from concept to state approval in nine months, which is pretty record-breaking around here, and the week that the state approved the programs in June of 1996, Mary Ambrose of The New York Times wrote about it to announce the opening of the first food studies program in the country. We had people in our office that afternoon holding up copies of the clipping saying, “I’ve waited all my life for this program.” And we had our first class that fall.
There wasn’t much resistance to a brand new program that had never existed before at NYU or any other university in the country?
The dean was quite worried about what we would do if it failed, and the faculty member that we hired had to promise us that she would be able to teach courses in other parts of the department if worse came to worst, but luckily, worse never came to worst. And now there are programs all over the country that are doing the same thing, or something similar…so our timing was extraordinary. We were ahead of the curve and now what is happening is so much of an avalanche that we’re running as fast as we can to stay ahead of it. It’s very exciting.
How has it grown since you started?
Well, the program is huge, and enrollment has never been a problem, never. There are now five full-time faculty positions (one of which is temporary). But that doesn’t count the other faculty in the department (like me) who teach courses in the program. And we’ve sent lots and lots of students out into the world.
The 6th Annual George McGovern lecture at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. Photo: US Department of State
What do they typically do?
They do everything. Food is a huge business. They teach, they write, they work in food companies, they have their own entrepreneurial businesses. A lot of them work for magazines, or they start their own businesses. They’re just everywhere.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of teaching here?
The students are wonderful. You get to see them go on…and how many places would allow you to start a new field? I don’t think very many. Only an entrepreneurial school like NYU. All we had to do was guess that we would get through and the dean took a chance on us. And we opened it up – if NYU can do it, we can do it – and that’s happening all over the country now. When we started…nobody wanted to talk about food, and now everybody’s talking about food.
What do you think has driven that change?
I think we did! We did! We made it respectable. We broke the ground so that everybody else could do the same thing. And everybody gets how easy it is to teach students anything you want if you’re talking about food. It really works.
Since food is so expensive in New York and organic food is even more expensive, how can students eat well on a budget?
Oh, they can eat fine at the cafeterias. They just have to choose the live foods instead of the dead ones.
What about the people who don’t have meal plans?
You have to cook. If you can cook, you can eat quite cheaply.
A recent study claims that the “freshman 15” is a myth. Do you have a view on that?
It’s absolutely not a myth. I mean, it may not be 15, but it’s not a myth. It’s a little easier in New York because people walk a lot. I was at Google this year, out in California, where food is free, and I asked to meet with the food management people there. And I said you’ve created an obesegenic environment here. You’ve got food everywhere and it’s free and it’s available 24/7. I said, “Aren’t people gaining weight?” And they said the average is about 15 pounds. I posted about it on my blog and people said it was more like 30 pounds. You have to learn how to manage it.
You write frequently about food as a political issue. What are the most important issues you’d like to see addressed by the government?
Oh, where to begin? Food safety is high up on the list. Fix food assistance programs. Fix food labeling. Restrict food marketing. Do something about school lunches. I could go on and on and on. All of these things need a great deal of intervention.
Do you think any of these issues will come up in the next election?
I don’t know how big the constituency is. I figure if we can’t get a food safety system in this country that functions, than getting anything else is not going to be particularly possible. Congress finally passed a food safety act that would improve the ability of the FDA to regulate the safety of the food supply and then just didn’t give the FDA any money to do it. Well, that’s a big help! The Senate recently passed a budget that’s going to give the FDA $50 million to take care of food safety – that’s a drop in the bucket! That’s not going to do anything.
What’s wrong with it now the way it is?
It’s divided between two agencies. One deals with animal foods, the other deals with vegetable foods, and they don’t have the same laws. They have different laws governing them, even though it’s animal waste that causes all the problems with vegetable foods. So we need one agency to do that. The rules are different, the enforcement is different. All of the money goes to the Department of Agriculture, and not the FDA, even though the FDA is responsible for three quarters of the food system and the USDA is responsible for one quarter. And the FDA’s funding comes out of the Agricultural Committee, that’s not right. All that needs to be changed, but we have a Congress that’s not going to do that and the food industry is opposed to making any changes because this way they get to do whatever they like, including poisoning people.
Do you have any guilty food pleasures?
No, I don’t feel guilty eating at all. I follow my own advice, which is to eat less, move more, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.
For more information about Marion Nestle, visit http://www.foodpolitics.com/. For details about Steinhardt’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, visit http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/nutrition/food/ma/.