Five Questions With: Jason Evans

Jason Evans is the dean for Johnson & Wales University’s new College of Food Innovation & Technology. The college, according to JWU, will prepare students to explore the role of food in everyday life, with a focus on science, nutrition, sustainability, safety, policy, business, and product development and design.

Evans spoke with Providence Business News about the program, what he feels are the causes of food insecurity and what can be done to help the agricultural industry.

PBN: How will students become new problem solvers and innovators to improve healthier eating, create more sustainable food systems and make food production more efficient in going through this new program?

EVANS: Academic programs in the College of Food Innovation & Technology are thoughtfully designed to first develop an understanding and appreciation of food through hands-on lab classes. These students learn how to prepare food, how supply chains in the food system function and how cultural, ecological and economic forces around the world dictate how and what people eat. We build on that foundation with intensive classroom and laboratory exploration of culinary science, product development, nutrition, entrepreneurship and sustainability.

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Most importantly, our students interact with real food system problems in their Directed Experiential Education courses and internships with food product developers, restaurants and food entrepreneurs. They see firsthand how multidisciplinary teams bring creativity and critical thinking to bear in problem solving and that sometimes, failing is the most direct route to success.

Over the next few months, our priority in CFIT will be to create even more opportunities for students to practice real-world problem-solving through team-based, faculty-led research initiatives and novel partnerships with private and nonprofit organizations that, every day, bring innovation and technology to making food healthier, tastier and more accessible.

PBN: What do you feel are the root causes of food insecurity and a lack of healthy eating?

EVANS: Unquestionably, food insecurity is an artifact of poverty; as such, food insecurity can’t properly and fully be addressed by society until poverty is prioritized as a quality-of-life concern for everyone worldwide. Food insecurity disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic households with children, raising yet more complex questions about racial or cultural inequities in economic mobility. Altogether, tackling food insecurity means incredibly difficult conversations in policy circles but usually, even deeply impactful issues don’t get political attention until public sentiment demands it. Food insecurity does drive households to seek out food that gives them the most caloric bang for their buck. These often aren’t the healthiest foods, heavily processed and full of fat, salt and sugar.

But food insecurity is only part of the barrier to healthier eating. We simply don’t invest enough in food education, starting at pre-K. Most young people will graduate high school without ever having intensive discussion or exploration of the food system’s intrinsic problems and the health, ecological, community and economic impacts of bad eating habits. Of course, unhealthy eating also has something to do with the fact that humans are hedonistic: we like what tastes good and triggers our pleasure receptors. This problem, though, is solvable. It simply requires that food scientists, chefs and nutritionists work collaboratively to develop products that are delicious yet functional and affordable, which is precisely what JWU CFIT students are trained to do.

PBN: Has the pandemic heightened the importance of looking deeper into food sustainability and policy? If so, how?

EVANS: Yes. The pandemic revealed vulnerabilities in our conventional food system.  Entire supply chains were disrupted because of individual processors or distributors temporarily shutting down their facilities. Of course, this was possible because of the consolidation that happened in the food system over the last decades. More than 50% – and often more than 70% – of the total output produced in the meat-processing, soy-crushing, corn-processing, dairy-processing, crop-seed and biotechnology, and even food-retail sectors [are] produced by the four largest firms in each sector. The tradeoff is that consolidation comes along with lower production costs, which are translated to consumers as lower food prices.

And, as these companies grow, they are able to adopt more sophisticated management technologies that ensure product safety and quality. So, most American consumers never have to think about the food system because they can get everything they want, in the form they want it, at a price they like, when they want it and where they want it by making one stop at their local supermarket. However, the convenience and low cost of the status quo ignores externalities – or hidden costs – of the design of our food system. COVID simply brought some of these to light. The food system is not as resilient as it might be if it were more regionalized, populated by businesses of varying shapes and sizes, with ample processing and distribution infrastructure to ensure “backstops” to disruptions that invariably arise.

PBN: What challenges are plaguing the agricultural industry and what can be done to address them?

EVANS: Many complex challenges plague the farm economy, from consolidation and lack of competition – both upstream (input suppliers) and downstream (output buyers) – of the farm to limited access to properly scaled processing and distribution infrastructure. The solution to these problems, unfortunately, lies in the larger, systemwide disconnectedness between consumer beliefs and values and their food-buying behavior. In short, consumer issues with the ecological, community, health and other implications of food-system design must translate to how they buy food. They have to actually vote with their dollars before the market will respond with a fundamentally different food system, replete with opportunities for farm and food businesses of all sizes and ubiquitously available and affordable healthy food options.

PBN: What programs will be offered for students at the College of Food Innovation & Technology?

EVANS: In addition to our long-standing associate and Bachelor of Science degree programs in Culinary Arts and Baking & Pastry, JWU CFIT offers bachelor’s programs in Culinary Nutrition, Culinary Science, Food & Beverage Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Food Systems. We’re also excited to launch a master’s degree in Food Innovation & Technology in fall 2021.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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