A Guide to College Degrees for a Career in Sustainable Food

by Catherine Elliott , Maggie Tauranac

Published: 8/23/18, Last updated: 5/23/19

So the time has come for you to pick your college major! We know what a stumper this can be. But if your world rotates around curiosity and concern about where food comes from, there are lots of routes for establishing a career that can build a more sustainable food system.

The issues involved in sustainable food systems are at the intersection of the environment, community, public health and the economy, so there are lots of options for where to build your knowledge base.

Finding a Path Focused on Sustainable Food

Higher education has been catching on to the need for diverse curricula around sustainable food systems, and many colleges and universities across the country now have some iteration of a food program. In addition to sustainable agriculture, a number of schools offer degrees and courses — such as food studies or gastronomy — that explore food systems from an interdisciplinary standpoint.

Options for bachelors programs based on sustainable food will only continue to increase and in the meantime, many schools that currently lack majors in food studies do offer minors. A smart thing to do is to couple your food systems studies with learning other concrete skills. The trick is identifying what you’re good at and like to do and pairing it with a knowledge-base. This will make you solidly marketable when you graduate.

Applying Different Majors to Roles in Food Sustainability

The great thing about food studies is that it can be connected to almost any field (psychology, sociology, communications, medicine, gender – you name it), so the majors below serve as a jumping off point for thinking about how you would like to pursue your career in food.

Physical Sciences

There is growing confusion about food research and trends (Fat is bad for you! Fat is good for you!) and the labels that come along with them. Research — and the ability to identify well-done and peer-reviewed research — is critical to understanding the causes of problems in our food system. Understanding both the value and limitations of animal studies, which often have different findings than studies in humans, is helpful for digesting eye-catching news headlines. Specific issues like genetic modification, agricultural use of antibiotics and the safety/health claims of raw milk are all examples of topics which demand scientific understanding to identify sustainable pathways forward.

Public Health and Social Sciences

Receiving a degree in public health will set you up to work on both national and international efforts to promote environmental health, nutrition, and universal access to food and clean water. A public health degree could land you a city or state Department of Health job or a position working in a foreign country with organizations like USAID. Other social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology, can prepare you to evaluate trends in how people and communities interact with local and industrial food source options. Some nonprofits focused on community health are looking for employees who have solid backgrounds in social sciences and food systems research. With a food-focused social sciences degree you are well positioned to be writer or journalist, an educator or a researcher at an academic institution.

Law and Policy

Policy shifts on the local, state and federal level are key for addressing issues in our food system. Advocacy is critical to building public support around much needed shifts in laws and policies towards ones that will put people and the environment over profit. Moving forward, the sustainable food movement will continue to need ecologically-minded allies who can navigate the complexities of the political and legal system and help support grassroots efforts. You can use your law degree to be a consumer advocate and practice in civil rights litigation focused on food companies, for example, or be a highly effective lobbyist (working for the good guys!). Similarly, a degree in public policy can land you a career working for a nonprofit advocacy organization, directly for a politician, or even for the USDA. And should you be interested in being a public servant, both degrees will position you excellently to go into politics yourself.


Economists have an entire toolset for understanding market behaviors and the production and distribution of goods as well as behavioral choices, all of which are uniquely tied to a system as complex as food. Having a concrete foundation in economics will better allow you to understand why farmers or businesses make certain choices to maintain their livelihoods, which sometimes might seem counter to our desires as sustainability advocates. A degree in economics can equip you with the skills to be a data analyst for some of the most effective influencers of our food system, such as the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

An economics degree can also set you up for starting your own business in sustainable food. Alternatively, a business degree can provide an understanding of economics, and deliver the skills necessary for solid planning and execution for your own business, or even in support of non-profits and startups.

Urban Planning

Over 80 percent of the US lives in urban centers, making urban planning with a focus on sustainable food a highly coveted skillset. Urban planning and development can address how food is produced, processed and distributed to a dense population, how to ensure access to healthy food, and how local food systems complement rural agriculture. And with the recent boom of urban agriculture, urbanites have new access to sustainably produced food streams, healthy public spaces and food education.

Supplementing Your Coursework With Experience

No matter what major you choose, gaining hands-on experience is key. Participate in an on-campus group, internship, apprenticeship, or volunteership, if available. Experiential learning could come from helping out at a farm or farmers’ market, wwoofing, apprenticing with a local artisan, joining an on-campus campaign such as the Real Food Challenge, or interning at a sustainable food-focused organization or publication.

Keep in mind that many of the best opportunities come from building connections rather than applying to a listing. If there’s a group doing the kind of work you would like to be involved in, don’t be afraid to reach out! Developing the confidence and communications skills to go out on a limb is an invaluable skill in its own right and the food movement is only growing because of this type of connectivity and community building.

Go get ’em.

A version of this post was published in February 2016.

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