ALAMOSA – Chase Smith has always enjoyed working with food. Since graduating from high school, he’s made sandwiches at Subway, worked in catering and rose through the ranks at a grocery store deli, eventually becoming a manager.
But he didn’t always love the food service industry’s long hours, early morning and late-night shifts and low pay. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, 24-year-old Smith decided it was the right time to go back to school and earn a bachelor’s degree.
Smith, a self-described “foodie” who grew up in Pueblo, enrolled in Adams State’s new food studies program. Now in his second semester, Smith hopes to someday work for a food aid organization or pursue a food-related career in business.
“Food is a basic necessity and it’s the foundation of everything we do,” he said. “You always hear about the people who were grouchy because they’re hungry and stuff like that. The difference of going into a job interview being hungry or on a full and healthy stomach is a pretty big difference. If I can help other people cover that necessity and also be able to improve themselves, I’ll feel like I’ve done my part to help other people.”
Smith is one of seven students taking advantage of Adams State’s innovative new degree program, which held its first classes in spring 2020. The interdisciplinary food studies program brings together every facet of food, including agriculture, nutrition, social justice, production, food systems, business and sustainability, just to name a few.
With a $125,000 grant from the Outcalt Foundation, the program will become even more robust over the summer, when crews will finish work updating a commercial kitchen in the East Campus building. The generous grant is also funding a classroom renovation to create a dedicated space for cooking classes and demonstrations.
The foundation supports the growth and prosperity of the San Luis Valley and serves as the lasting legacy of Ralph Outcalt, the long-time local philanthropist and businessman who died in 2014.
“Ralph was committed to the San Luis Valley way of life and, particularly, the agricultural community,” said Karla Shriver, one of the foundation’s trustees. “This Adams State project aligns with that goal. If we can help educate people about their food, food sources, where it comes from, how it’s prepared, that helps the agricultural industry and also supports the health and wellness of the Valley.”
Adams State first began considering a potential new food studies program five years ago. With the Valley’s long-standing agricultural roots, popular farmers’ market, and many local foods organizations, it felt like the right fit.
University leaders convened an advisory group of community members working in food-related industries and began researching related programs at other universities.
“There were a number of them that were growing and thriving, but they were almost all on the East and West coasts, and primarily in urban areas,” said Margaret Doell, associate vice president for academic affairs. “There really wasn’t anything in the central part of the country and nothing in Colorado. It seemed like a potential niche area where Adams State could really shine. We have all the pieces with our rural setting and this vibrant local foods economy around us.”
The food studies program helps fill a void for students and the community. Graduates will have a bottom-to-top understanding of food, with more intensive knowledge and training in their chosen area of emphasis: health and wellness, sustainability, business and food policy or sociology/social justice. They’ll be able to hit the ground running after graduation, whether they choose to work for an existing company, start their own business or support a nonprofit.
“Food touches so many different things that students really need to learn about all these different realms to understand the whole system,” said Nicole Kasper, a food studies professor who also helped develop the program. “It’s one of the biggest sectors of the economy. It’s one of the biggest influences on our health. It’s one of the biggest influences on the environment.”
Local employers get a fresh infusion of talent, with graduates who are top-notch critical thinkers and have both theoretical and applied knowledge of food. As part of the program, students tend to an on-campus garden, complete internships, interact with guest lecturers and take hands-on lab classes.
San Luis Valley residents will also benefit from the commercial kitchen and cooking classroom, which will be available for events, courses, workshops and other needs. Those community events may even someday lead to continuing education classes at Adams State, Doell said.
“We really want to foster opportunities and collaboration — the goal really was to create a community kitchen,” she said.
For more information about the food studies program at Adams State, contact Nicole Kasper at [email protected] or visit the program’s website https://www.adams.edu/academics/undergraduate/food-studies/.