ACF Student Chef Elijah Smith plans to use his sustainable food systems degree to help change the world

By Kenya McCullum

ACF Student Chef Elijah Smith first learned about the Sustainable Food Systems bachelor’s degree program at Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, Rhode Island, when he was walking on campus and saw a poster advertising it. Already a culinary arts major, the new program caught his eye and he had to know more. After visiting the school’s website and learning about course requirements, Smith decided enrolling in the program would be the perfect way to make a difference in the industry—and as someone who has worked in kitchens for years, he knows the need for increased sustainable practices in restaurants.

IMG_20220129_095753_560“Sustainability is not something that most chefs think about,” says Smith, “The restaurants I worked in had a lot of convenience products being bought, so products were brought into the restaurant already made and they weren’t sourced ethically and weren’t from local farms. They were coming all the way across the country, so you have the transportation emissions and costs, and you’re not being environmentally, economically, or culturally sustainable.”

Smith is part of the first-ever cohort of the Sustainable Food Systems program with students expected to graduate in 2024. The program starts off with one year of basic culinary foundational skills with an option for a Baking and Pastry Arts track. During the second year, students take labs such as Cooking from the Farmstand (learning to navigate seasonality and working with local ingredients), Cooking for Regenerative Foodways (students learn how to preserve cultural identities through food), and Culinary Science, Nutrition and Sensory Analysis (students learn the science behind cooking in the modern world). They are also charged with taking the academic courses Growing for the Menu (students visit a partner farm, and learn the basics of agriculture while using their crop yields at the end of the semester to curate a tasting menu featuring their seasonal harvest), and Sustainability in the Culinary Kitchen (a class that visits local farms within the food system, learning about different ways to be sustainable in the kitchen as chefs). During the third year, students have the option to take elective classes, and are encouraged to participate in an academic minor. The fourth and senior year involves a final internship.

To get students thinking about how sustainable strategies can be applied to the industry, Johnson & Wales provides a curriculum that covers culinary sustainability practices, supply chain management, and public health. The program, which is offered through the College of Food Innovation & Technology, also has policy and advocacy coursework designed to empower students to advocate for sustainable food systems in order to prevent waste, food insecurity, and poor health outcomes.

And this is the part of his studies that Smith is especially excited about. He plans to use his education to ultimately pursue a career in food policy—and even aspires to run for office to do something about sustainability at the policy level.

“My plan is to run for Rhode Island General Assembly to start to implement more sustainable food policy for the state,” Smith says. “I would like to get to the point where one day I’m able to enact some sustainable food policy on a more federal level to help advance our nation’s food system into a more sustainable way of life.”

Smith credits the sustainable food systems program for opening his eyes to the path he can follow to pursue these ambitions. He was especially inspired by the cultivating local food systems course, where he got an up close and personal look at how food systems work—particularly how the culinary industry, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations all come together to play a role in the process.

“That class was really unique in the fact that it had us go out into the food system,” says Smith. “We were required to do 40 hours of onsite observation in either a nonprofit government organization or food service operation. We were tasked with evaluating their level of sustainability and reporting back to our class with a 10-page paper and 20-minute research project or presentation.”

As a result of this work, Smith was able to see how he could realistically reach his goals in the culinary industry—and ultimately make a huge difference in the world.

“It’s so hard to wrap your mind around sometimes, as a college student, what you can do to change the world. Realistically, I have so many goals and aspirations, but really when you get down to the nitty gritty, it’s hard to quantify what you as one person can do to change the world,” he says. “That’s what was so hard and so great about that class. It really made me think, and I would just be sitting in my own thoughts thinking about what I can do to help change the world. And that’s what flung me on this path of thinking about running for local office. So I would start drafting out ideas of what I could do in terms of policy, what I could do in terms of changing the community, and how I can get to know the community and the food system more. I realize what the problems are and what I can do to help if I’m able to get a position of power one day.”