Students + Campus

Food for thought takes on new meaning for UC Global Food Initiative fellows at UCLA

The program was founded to provide solutions to combat local, national and global hunger

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Shelly Dieu, Jasmine Fong and Shiyu Ji
Rebecca Kendall/UCLA

2017–2018 UC Global Food Initiative fellows Shelly Dieu, Jasmine Fong and Shiyu Ji.

Shelly Dieu wants to make sure her classmates who are eligible for CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, apply to the program and don’t go hungry. Shiyu Ji is interested in how people in China process and consume food as compared to Americans. Jasmine Fong wants to make hunger and homelessness remnants of the past.

For Dieu, Ji, Fong and six other UCLA students, the subject of food is filled with questions, topped with lessons and mixed with opportunities as they complete their work as 2017–2018 University of California Global Food Initiative student fellows and ambassadors.

Since its inception in 2015, the fellows program has awarded more than 200 UC students — including 33 from UCLA — with funding to complete self-initiated research, projects or internships that focus on food or food issues. The UC Global Food Initiative, which was inspired in large part by the success of the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, was founded in 2014 to provide solutions to combat local, national and global hunger.

As a child, Fong aspired to be a star on the Food Network, taking meticulous notes while she watched her favorite celebrity hosts flambé, sauté and purée on the small screen. Ji worked in his family’s noodle shop in Shanghai, China, and was fascinated by the fusion of flavors sprinkled throughout the city’s cuisine. Dieu admits she didn’t think about food beyond knowing what things she liked and didn’t like and eating when she was hungry.

At UCLA, their understanding of the world of food was enhanced by their ability to join various food-related student organizations and integrate UCLA’s new food studies minor into their degree programs.

“I don’t think I would have gained as much insight without the minor,” said Fong, who grew up in Bakersfield, California, about 110 miles north of Los Angeles, and a major hub for California’s agricultural industry. “Many of my family friends are in the farming business, so this is a great way for me to understand the complex issues faced by one of the most prominent industries in my hometown.”

In addition to her studies, Fong, who is a third-year economics major, volunteers with the Hunger Project at UCLA, a student-run organization that aims to combat homelessness. Her community service efforts also extend to Food Forward, a local nonprofit that supplies more than 6 million pounds of food annually to nearly 1 million people in Los Angeles and five neighboring counties.

As part of her fellowship, Fong attended a meeting held by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s Food Waste Prevention and Rescue Working Group, during which she learned about research on and goals for organic waste recycling infrastructure and biogas. She has also volunteered at People Assisting the Homeless, where she helped prepare a multi-course dinner for homeless veterans.

“These invaluable experiences have connected me with a diverse array of people with fascinating perspectives on the future of food,” said Fong, who is interested in pursuing a career in either corporate law or environmental law. “Being in the food studies minor and a GFI fellow has really opened my eyes up to the unique opportunities UCLA’s curriculum can offer to students.”

Dieu said she became interested in food studies after taking a class focused on the connections between food, the environment and sustainability. Dieu is also a part of the Healthy Campus Initiative Living Well Coalition, which meets monthly and brings together the HCI undergraduate staff and other student group representatives to share and identify opportunities to integrate wellbeing into campus life.

“I just really got into food,” said Dieu, a former economics major who switched to geography/environmental studies, added a food studies minor, joined food-related student groups E3 and the Undergraduate Food Network and gave up eating red meat, after learning about the environmental impact of beef production.

To help fellow students increase their ability to eat well, she began working as an intern for the UCLA CalFresh Initiative.

“To date, we’ve directly helped enroll roughly 500 students through our outreach, which includes email campaigns and face-to-face enrollment events,” said Dieu, adding that these students often tell their friends about CalFresh, providing further program awareness and access for UCLA students.  

“I’ve seen people’s stress levels reduce when they’ve been helped,” Dieu said, noting that CalFresh provides eligible students with up to $192 per month for food expenses. “They’re so appreciative and thankful and it’s so great to hear.”

Dieu is heartened by the support that the UC has invested in promoting food security on its campuses. She said she was especially appreciative after attending a national conference about how to improve food and housing security on college campuses.

“In speaking with students from across the country I’ve come to realize that the UC system has an amazing backbone in terms of how to increase food and housing security and basic needs,” said Dieu, who pointed out that the University of California has allocated funding to each of its 10 campuses to support immediate needs and develop sustainable long-term solutions. At UCLA, this funding was directed to the UCLA Food Closet, the campus meal voucher program and the UCLA Teaching Kitchen Collaborative.

Ji, a second-year statistics major, is examining how the patterns of food production and consumption are changing China culturally, socially and economically, what these changes mean for China in terms of human health and the development of farming practices, and how the Chinese experience compares to that of the United States.

“Chinese people are now calling for advanced American-style technology in order to create higher yields on the land, which may not be good,” Ji said. “We try to balance these interests, so that farmers and consumers benefit without damaging the environment.”

In addition to his family’s noodle shop, Ji’s fascination with food was inspired by the community and foods that filled his hometown as he was growing up. He said that Shanghai’s food landscape is influenced by a century of migration that saw people from all over the country move into the city. This, coupled with more recent immigration, has resulted in a city of fusion cuisine. “Although we are all Shanghainese, we have different preferences of food. We always exchange food and we cook together a lot, and also combine flavors. It’s very interesting to me.”

Ji’s interest in adding UCLA’s food studies minor was inspired by a physiology class he took in his freshman year that covered topics like nutrition, the textural properties of food and environmental science. He is already exploring ways to blend his interests in statistics and in food studies into his graduate studies. Food engineering, a field that combines the disciplines of chemistry, applied physical sciences, microbiology and engineering for the benefit of food related industries, intrigues him and is one possible path for his graduate work and professional life.

He said he had also been inspired by other Global Food Initiative fellows that he has met with during the past several months. He said these interactions have made him aware of the responsibility that goes along with this fellowship and of the importance of contributing to the community academically and as a volunteer.

“This is a community where people are interested about food and they’re willing to take it seriously as a topic and get people involved,” Ji said. “They are impressive and it’s a great way to learn more about various aspects of food.”

The undergraduate food studies minor program is now accepting applications for the 2018-2019 UC Global Food Initiative Student Fellowship Program. Students enrolled in the minor may contact Shahla Rahimzadeh, academic counsellor, at srahimza@college.ucla.edu for more information.

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