That alone is enough to hook students, says professor of biochemistry and chemistry James Gober, whose new course “Food: Molecules, Microbes, Environment” explores the basic scientific principles of cooking. (We have the phenomenon of boiling-point elevation to thank for candy making’s versatility.)

Gober’s course includes a discussion on heat transfer — what actually happens on the molecular level when you smoke meat versus grill it — and he is planning a demonstration in which students learn about the concept of emulsion by making mayonnaise. Future discussions will cover everything from the bacteria that make cheese possible to why xanthan gum thickens Thanksgiving gravy.

“I wanted to do this course because, as a scientist, it really bugs me how many myths and misconceptions there are about what we eat,” Gober says. “I thought it’d be fun to use the science of what food actually is to make students think critically.”

No fewer than 90 students enrolled in Gober’s course, whereas most upper-level chemistry electives typically enroll about 30.

“It’s empowering for students to learn even something like ice cream represents science in action,” he says. “My course dovetails nicely with so many other things going on at UCLA around food, one of the most intrinsically multidisciplinary areas.”


Across UCLA’s campus, food represents a powerful and accessible entry point into any field, with local, national and global repercussions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent creation of the UCLA Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies. Located in the division of undergraduate education, it will house UCLA’s food studies minor and support expansion of curricular and co-curricular activities while bringing together faculty, staff, students, chefs and community members.

A $13.5-million gift will provide ongoing funding for research, curriculum and resources, including the first endowed food studies librarian at a university, as well as hands-on experiential learning opportunities, a new chef-in-residence program and expansion of the UCLA Teaching Kitchen.

“The institute will also guide and inform public policy while addressing issues that impact us all, including food insecurity, climate change and advancing innovations in food systems,” says dean of the division of undergraduate education Adriana Galván. “By providing a means and the resources to explore these concepts, our students will have an unparalleled collaborative opportunity to enact true change.”

A UCLA political science alumna who became famous as TV’s “$5 chef,” Marcie H. Rothman was key to helping the institute take permanent shape, tracing its genesis back to her parents and sister, Bruins all.

“Food connects and sustains,” she says, “and the Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies will represent all of that and more for current and future students and faculty.”

Fittingly, biophysicist Amy Rowat, a pioneer in engaging general audiences and students with science via cooking, serves as UCLA’s inaugural Marcie H. Rothman Professor of Food Studies.

“I’m thrilled and grateful that this chair will support our vision of a world where we can produce delicious, nutritious foods to sustainably feed all,” Rowat says. “I’m also excited to expand my education research, using food to empower students to tackle complex societal challenges.”

One such challenge looks to the impending reality of cultured meat. The process involves cultivating animal cells in a lab — eliminating the need to kill any animal — to create an unlimited amount of genuine meat products, potentially engineered to be healthier for human consumption.

“Cultured meat is not commercially available yet, but it will be soon,” says A. Janet Tomiyama, an associate professor of psychology. “It could save the Earth, but humans have to adopt it, so the psychological aspect is crucial.”

Tomiyama and Rowat are part of an interdisciplinary team that published a paper outlining the potential challenges of bridging the gap between science and public perception.

“Food isn’t nutritious until it’s eaten — the decision to eat or not is important but not studied often,” says Tomiyama. “We make so many different decisions every day to eat this or not eat that. And people think about food all the time; they take pictures, talk about it. It seems natural to study what drives different eating behaviors.”


UCLA recently earned the No. 1 spot in Niche’s “Best College Food in America” rankings for the third year in a row, but our entire community also leads the way in food access, health and sustainability efforts. Here, a menu of milestones and innovations. —LUCY BERBEO

Formal launch of DIG at UCLA: The Campus Garden Coalition, a student group that runs a community garden, hosts peer-led workshops and donates produce to the campus food closet. 

The Semel Healthy Campus Initiative kicks off and includes the EatWell Pod, a workgroup focused on food literacy, access and knowledge.

The sustainability-themed Bruin Plate dining hall opens its doors. A certified green restaurant, it forgoes typical college fare to offer locally sourced, whole foods — including herbs and greens grown on campus. 

UCLA’s food providers increase the use of sustainable packaging, converting all to-go containers to compostable products. As part of today’s campus sustainability plan, UCLA aims to be plastic-free by 2023.

Student leaders partner with the UCLA dining team to launch Bruin Dine, which serves surplus food from dining halls as free meals to students and others in need.

The UCLA–Venice Family Clinic Emergency Food Partnership distributes roughly 13,000 free meals a week to patients and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UCLA partners with Starship Technologies to launch contact-free campus food delivery robots.

The UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden advances a native species restoration project in partnership with members of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, who will harvest the plants.


A conversation between food studies committee leaders Robin (Lauren) Derby, associate professor of history, and Michael Roberts, founding executive director of the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, inspired them to create a new travel study summer course, “Atlantic Foodways: Culture, Science, Governance.”

“We’ll focus on Italian food history from the medieval period to Mussolini, examining how he used beer to craft a populist face for his regime,” says Derby. “From there, we’ll go into the slow food movement, cooking classes and market visits, and we’ll discuss changing labor practices, including immigration and the current experience of Ukrainians arriving in Italy.”

Derby has long been fascinated by how food shines a light on the historical labor of women, enslaved people and Indigenous people, as well as how Americans have naturalized an unsustainable food system.

“Food’s an inspiring area of study because you can come at it from so many angles,” she says. “I’ve had students who’ve done everything from writing about dumpster diving to completing ethnographies on food labels.”

Even without travel, food inspires creativity and community, both in and out of the classroom.

Continuing lecturer Michelle Huneven — a novelist who spent 15 years as a food writer and whose new novel, Search, features recipes and is narrated by a restaurant critic — was delighted to launch a UCLA course on food writing as creative writing.

“I have been so impressed and enlightened by my students. They are fully attuned to the great pleasures of cooking, serving and eating food while also being painfully aware of how fragile and imperiled food resources are due to climate change and destructive agricultural practices,” Huneven says. “They know they are inheriting a gravely damaged world, and I am struck by their determination to heal it. Their righteous anger and activism find a voice in writing about food. They give me hope.”


Food justice and activism are integral parts of the movement across UCLA’s campus. Geography major Tori Crisostomo-Rickman, for example, works through the Undergraduate Research Centers and the Center for Community Engagement to study food deserts. 

“My research partners with a local nonprofit to examine food disparities and create strategies for expanding community access to fresh food in South L.A.,” she says. “I’m using GIS and mapping to identify resources like farmers markets, local markets and chain grocery stores while trying to understand what factors prevent community members from accessing these resources and what local organizations can do to help.”

Earlier this year, the UCLA Labor Center published a study on the Los Angeles fast food sector, which employs more than a third of all of L.A.’s restaurant workers. It found that these fast food workers — in frontline pandemic roles — were placed at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 while facing increased violations of labor standards.

“More than half of workers felt that employers didn’t address their needs after they spoke up, and some even faced retaliation for doing so,” says Tia Koonse, report author and legal and policy research manager at the Labor Center. “Only 47% of fast food workers received paid sick leave when they or their coworkers contracted the virus.”

Authors of the report, which is the first on COVID-19 safety compliance through this particular lens, offered recommendations for policy interventions and further documentation by researchers.

“Our study shows that fast food workers face an array of workplace challenges that extend beyond COVID-19,” says Saba Waheed, report author and research director at the Labor Center. “The pandemic lifted up how essential this workforce is, and we need to address the deeper structural problems in the sector.”

Anthropology doctoral student Sucharita Kanjilal, who earned a 2021 Robert B. Edgerton Endowed Graduate Fellowship, studies a different kind of food-related labor. She focuses on digital food media and the large number of women making a living posting online home cooking and recipe content in India and its diasporas.

“My research uses food to understand the relationships between the household, cultural politics and digital capitalism,” she says. “It’s inspired in part by my career as a journalist in India at a time when food and dietary choices became a violent site of state repression and political struggle.”

Reporting on the “beef lynchings” of Muslims, Kanjilal grew deeply aware of both the material and symbolic value of food as well as the importance of recognizing its inherent complexity.

“Food simply cannot be reduced to any one thing. Rather, it can give us a powerful window into thinking about a wider set of political-economic structures,” she says. “Taking food seriously means always being attentive to power, domination, struggle, justice and internationalism. If your passion for food has not radicalized you, you’re not thinking hard enough!”


I created my “Poetics of Soul Food” course to explore the historical and cultural context of a cuisine defined by spiritual  as well as material and aesthetic values.

Many people associate “soul food” with processed ingredients. Contrary to popular belief amplified by media images, soul food is not inherently unhealthful and easily lends itself to nutritious meals.

Soul food is not synonymous with “slave food.” The majority of African Americans in bondage rarely or never tasted these dishes. Fresh meat, milk and dairy products, wheat, sugar, fruits and vegetables were not included in minimal rations provided for enslaved workers. In other words: no fried chicken, no macaroni and cheese, no biscuits, no peach cobbler. 

Decades after abolition, such foods were reserved in freedom for celebrating special occasions. Most slaveholders, like our nation’s first president, fed workers enough to survive and no more. The daily allowance for an adult worker on George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation was one quart of cornmeal and five to eight ounces of dried salted fish. 

In certain cases, enslaved laborers might achieve a more varied diet by working extra hours growing, foraging, hunting, trapping, fishing and trading food to supplement their meager allotment. What eventually became soul food began with African Americans determined to survive body-and-soul-killing conditions. This culinary tradition is a tribute to their ingenuity and perseverance.

Everyone eats. Everyone has a visceral connection with food and an intimate understanding of its essential role in personal and collective survival. It involves virtually every imaginable disciplinary study and inspires a comprehensive, holistic approach to teaching and learning. The subject is inexhaustible; my students never get tired of talking about food.



UCLA’s food studies minor has had a big impact on countless students already, regardless of their major. For example, transfer student and history major Arianna Sepulveda was always intrigued by the science of nutrition. 

As part of her food studies minor, she completed an internship at a farmers market in Torrance, which resulted in the offer of a full-time post-graduation position. She’s looking forward to gaining more hands-on experience that she hopes to use in graduate school one day.

“I feel so lucky I got to pursue both my passions at UCLA,” Sepulveda says. “Being a part of the food studies minor opened up many doors in this field I’m excited to explore.”

Dana Gillis, another transfer student, knew she wanted to major in philosophy. But as she perused the list of minors, one in particular caught her eye.

“I have always loved food in all aspects — eating, cooking, reviewing and more — and I realized that, like philosophy, food studies is applicable to every subject,” she says. “Whether you are interested in STEM or the humanities (or a bit of both), food connects to any topic or class.”

For her minor capstone project, Gillis wrote a research paper on the impact of industrialization on oral health, which sparked her interest in potentially becoming a registered dietician or dentist.

“Before I transferred to UCLA, I had no idea the subject of food studies even existed,” she says. “I’ll always be grateful I got the opportunity to expand my knowledge, curiosity and drive.”

Like Gillis, Sarah Mejia is a philosophy major who had her eyes opened to an academic discipline she had never considered before.

“I realized that during my K–12 education, I had never been taught anything about food beyond the food pyramid,” she says. “When I saw the food studies minor would have me taking classes across every discipline, I knew this was a rare opportunity to broaden my understanding of our world.”

Particularly inspired by the social justice and creativity angles of studying food, Mejia hopes to get into magazine journalism and design, but says she’ll carry lessons from her minor with her no matter what.

“I learned so much about food justice, food history and even how to grow my own food — Professor James Bassett has a gardening component where students can use the plots at Sunset Rec,” Mejia says. “So much of our lives revolves around food. I will never look at it indifferently again.”


No matter the field, UCLA’s food-related research and work encourages us all to be more thoughtful about what we consume. After all, the acts of preparing food and eating remind us how tied we are to the Earth — and to one another.

“Just think of how many imaginative ways food has been cultivated throughout history. Everything we eat and every method of preparation represent so much curiosity, effort and creativity,” says Gober, the aforementioned professor of biochemistry and chemistry. “Can you imagine being the first person to discover how to cook food — and what that first meal must have tasted like to them? Food should remind us all of our ingenuity, our progress and our potential.”

“If you ever need proof we are all part of the interconnected web of existence, consider the apple you’re eating and how it came into your hands, from the person who grafted the varietal onto the rootstock to the picker, the warehouse worker, the truck drivers (not to mention the people who built the trucks, highways, pallets, boxes), all the way to the checkout person at your grocery store. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people made your apple possible.”

– Michelle Huneven, Continuing Lecturer


To visually represent how our Bruin family leads the way in the world of food, we turned to students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends who are making a difference through community, creativity and science. The food items pictured throughout this feature were sourced and inspired by these innovators and creators — and all food was gratefully eaten, donated or composted after being photographed. Roll up your sleeves and dig into these exciting initiatives taking place on campus and beyond!

Image of kale and other greens.The jane b semel Healthy Campus Initiative (HCI) Community Garden, located at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, is an on-campus space for the UCLA community to grow food, host workshops and lead educational programming on gardening in urban environments. The garden team kindly allowed us to access the garden. A special thanks to Garden Coordinators Derica Su and Ally Steinleitner for helping harvest the greens.

Image of pieces of chocolate on a purple background.E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity is a student organization rooted in responsibility for the environment, human justice and economic viability. Among their many initiatives are Fair Trade for Finals, which brings students snacks during finals week (this year, fair-trade chocolate and tea); and a free produce fair, in which they partner with organizations like Food Forward to distribute reclaimed food on campus.

Image of blue and white cookie cutouts spelling the words

Emily Yetter ’10 is the creator and sole owner/employee of Lil Em’s. An alumna of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, she is a longtime partner to the UCLA College. Her custom-made, artistically designed cookies are often seen on campus commemorating milestones and celebrations in the College’s five divisions.

Image of orange, pink and white

Ashton Yoon ’12, who earned a B.S. in environmental science from UCLA, is an entrepreneur who co-founded Antithesis Foods, a food technology company that makes processed foods healthier through food science. The company develops crunchy foods based on legumes, including Protos, a gluten-free pita chip, and mix-ins used as nutritious inclusions for yogurts and bars, among other food innovations.

Image of dry noodles, a zucchini and peanuts used in a meal kit.

Laila Adarkar (class of 2023), a rising senior majoring in global studies and minoring in food studies, has led cooking video demonstrations and is actively engaged in promoting knowledge of cooking. Most recently, she has distributed meal kits through her influential Cook This Kit program, formed in partnership with the Farmers Market at UCLA and Semel HCI and spotlighted in the Daily Bruin.

Image of brown and yellow crackers.UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability students Kiera Dixon and Malia Michelsen, under the mentorship of Catherine Carpenter, are researching climate-friendly foods in partnership with Airly Foods, a climate-friendly snack company. Their paper, due to be published this summer, compares the footprints of keto, paleo, Mediterranean, vegan, climatarian and standard American diets.

Image of an open-faced caprese sandwich featuring a thick slice of tomato on top and balsamic dressing swirled around the plate.Bruin Plate dining halla 900-seat residential restaurant serving UCLA since fall 2013, offers a menu that focuses on fresh, wholesome and nutritionally balanced options and follows best practices of sustainability in food service operations. Because its focus is on quality, freshness, and flavor, Bruin Plate helps to remove the stigma often associated with “healthy food.”

The Westwood Village Farmers Market, held each week on Thursdays, is a Bruin family staple that offers organic produce, flowers, a compost hub and more. UCLA this year launched First Thursdays, a food-and-entertainment series that kicks off each month at the farmers market, where Bruins can buy local foods and forge stronger ties with the community.


DIG at UCLA: The Campus Garden Coalition is a student group that runs a community garden, hosts peer-led workshops and donates produce to the campus food closet. DIG’s goal is to foster the relationship between nature, humans and fresh, healthy food. The group offers workshops on everything from container gardening to flower-pressing to food justice.

Professor Amy Rowat is UCLA’s inaugural Marcie H. Rothman Professor of Food Studies. A pioneer in engaging general audiences and students with science via cooking, she is the founder and director of Science & Food, a UCLA-based organization promoting knowledge of “science through food and food through science,” and she leads the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative’s Food Pod.

Rebecca Liu ‘14, who earned a B.S. in Biology from UCLA, is a Sensory & Perceptual Researcher at Impossible Foods, where she designs, conducts, and analyzes experiments to measure and understand how people respond to the foods they eat. At UCLA, she was part of Amy Rowat’s lab, where researchers study cells as materials and seek to translate discoveries to applications from human health to the foods that we eat.

Lenny Wu (class of 2023), a rising senior majoring in computer science and applied mathematics, is a chef, food photographer, and web and content developer for her popular food blog, Vegamelon, which focuses on plant-based recipes. Though she’s currently on hiatus from cooking, you can browse her collection of food photographs and recipes on Instagram.

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