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The programme’s practical elements have been crucial to its success

Studying food in a time of crisis

From gardening and food preservation to redesigning food systems, the University of Exeter’s MA in Food Studies brings together food, wellbeing, sustainability and community


Like others around the world, students and lecturers on the MA degree programme in Food Studies at the University of Exeter have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic as a shock to the food system. Lockdown in the United Kingdom came near the end of classes in March, forcing most students to return home. In coming weeks, they bore witness to profound and sudden changes in the food landscapes they had studied. With restaurants, workplace canteens and school cafeterias shut, they observed that people were preparing more food at home. Supermarkets remained open—with their staff identified as key workers—but shopping was transformed by panic-buying, shortages, limits on numbers and movements in-store, online ordering, curb-side pickup and home delivery. In conversations over zoom, students discussed with their lecturers how some food suppliers were struggling to sell their produce, while others struggled to keep pace with demand, as workers risked exposure to the virus and as migrant labourers upon whom harvests depended were unable to cross borders to earn a living. Some of the small scale, “alternative” food networks that they had studied were thriving, while others had collapsed entirely. In the midst of such rapid and profound transformation, students saw that food was on everyone’s minds—from policymakers concerned about food security, to producers worried about meeting shifting consumer needs, to ordinary people uncertain about how to feed their families safely and affordably.


The MA in Food Studies not only taught these students to recognise this array of changes, it also prepared them to envision their implications, and to rise to the challenges, and opportunities, that they present. This world-leading programme teaches students to view present-day developments in the world of food—including the shocks brought on by the global pandemic—in broader context, and to understand their historical, cultural, political, economic, and environmental dimensions. According to Prof Harry G West, who convenes the programme, “COVID-19 has made underlying issues in our food supply more visible, but these issues are complex, and have deep roots.” Core modules on the programme draw on the disciplines of history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, politics, geography, business, and nutrition to show students how food is simultaneously many things—the substances with which we sustain our bodies, the basis of individual livelihoods and national economies, a key component of cultural heritage, and a powerful mediator of our engagement with the natural world.


West reported that, with only two weeks remaining in term when lockdown was implemented, students on the MA scrambled to return home at the same time that they were meant to be completing term essays for the course module on Food Systems and Alternative Food Networks. Even so, several students quickly pivoted to produce essays that addressed the food dimensions of the pandemic. Sebastian Gil Vargas went on to undertake research for his dissertation in his home country of Colombia, surveying how the crisis had altered the way people of different social classes were able to obtain food, and which of these changes were likely to persist in the future. “We train our students to delve into complex issues,” West says, “and then, we see them critically engage with unprecedented developments in real time. It’s truly impressive, and gives me hope that our graduates will make valuable contributions to the resolution of the very thorny problems that await us in the coming months and years.”


The programme’s practical elements have been crucial to its success. A module on Gardening, Wellbeing and Community taught by Dr Paul Cleave has not only taught students a wide range of food growing skills, but also introduced them to gardens that support people grappling with poverty, poor diet, mental health issues, and various forms of social discrimination. A module on Food Preservation has taught them the underpinning science, cultural history, and changing economic contexts of food preservation. When locked down, students not only knew how to sow their own gardens, pickle their own produce, and bake their own sourdough, they also recognised the potential value of these activities to the physical health and mental wellbeing of individuals in isolation and communities in economic crisis. Isobel Cox’s final project for the Gardening module was the design of a low-cost home garden for urban dwellers with strictly-limited space, along with recipes for converting its produce into healthy meals to feed a small family.


In the midst of lockdown, Dr Celia Plender, who lectures on the MA, volunteered at the bakery in St Sidwell’s Community Centre (the locale for some of the MA’s practical classes) where she helped prepare fresh bread for delivery to vulnerable Exeter residents. This work—which follows on longstanding research she has conducted on the role of cooperatives and other forms of “mutual aid” in the food sector—has provided students with a model for how academic research can inform and support practical interventions in the food world today. Another academic who teaches on the MA, Prof Matt Lobley, secured funding in May from the UK Economic and Social Research Council to study Food System Impacts of COVID-19 with other colleagues at the University of Exeter. Veronica White, a student on another degree programme who took the MA’s Food Systems module as a course option, is assisting with the work, gaining valuable research experience.


Through such means, students at the University of Exeter have not only transformed an anxious world into a productive and mutually supportive work space, they have laid foundations for careers that will reshape the food landscape in the wake of the pandemic. “While the current crisis has exposed vulnerabilities,” West says, “it has also focused attention, and this creates openings for the creation of better food systems and practices in the future.” People who understand how the scientific, the economic, and the social converge in food, and who are able to re-envision food practices and food systems—whether in their communities or at the international level—will be in great need in the foreseeable future, and graduates of the MA in Food Studies look certain to be among them.

Date: 1 July 2020