Go Back to School For Free: Five Online Food Policy Courses

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Lauren Lindstrom

The internet can be an equalizer when it comes to education and is teeming with free online courses from top-shelf universities. The New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College searched a few of the top sites and rounded up five courses that will help you get on solid ground of food policy basics—learning from experts thousands of miles away.

Courses are offered either direct from a university or through an aggregator organization that pulls from schools across the country, or even the world. These two formats have a few important differences; understanding them will help you choose a class that works for your needs and interests.

Direct from a university: Many universities offer ‘open courseware’ websites, which means you can access materials from a selection of their semester-long classes for free. The best allow you to watch recordings of lectures and provide one-click access to reading assignments; others may be useful if you’re game to hunt down the recommended reading on your own or read through lectures transcripts. These types of courses give you the flexibility to pace yourself and freedom from homework and grades. We’ve profiled open courses from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Yale University below, but you also may want to check out Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts, and University of Michigan for great food policy–related classes—not to mention the hundreds of other courses on everything from protein folding to fairy tales.

Through an aggregator: The two big ones, Coursera and EdX, are education platforms that partner with universities and offer what’s known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), aimed at enrolling unlimited students and allowing you to interact with people from across the globe. The classes are often more traditional in format, with quizzes and grades and may provide the opportunity to earn a certificate for a small fee; some are self-paced while others have set start dates. In a boon for students everywhere, these sites are continually adding new content to feed your ongoing curiosities.

So get ready to jump back into the classroom for FREE!

The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

School: Yale University, through Open Yale Courses

Instructor: Kelly Brownell, formerly of Yale and current Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke

Description from Yale: “This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.”

Time required: Self-paced

Format: This is a recording of a previously held course so it’s not interactive, but it’s engaging through video lectures. You can access the syllabus and list of readings (note: this is a list—not links to pdfs; some of the pieces are easily Google-able news articles; others are free journal articles but others have a pay-per-article fee); no need to do assignments unless you’re so inclined

Start date: Anytime

Sign up here!

Food Production, Public Health, and the Environment

School: Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, through their OpenCourseWare website

Instructors: Bob Lawrence, Founding Director, and Polly Walker, Senior Fellow, of Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future

Description from Johns Hopkins: “This course provides an understanding of the complex and challenging public health issue of food security and in a world where one billion people are under-nourished while another billion are overweight. Explores the connections among diet, the current food and food animal production systems, the environment and public health, considering factors such as economics, population and equity. Case studies are used to examine these complex relationships and as well as alternative approaches to achieving both local and global food security and the important role public health can play. Guest lecturers include experts from a variety of disciplines and experiences.”

Time required: Self-paced

Format: This is a recording of a previously held course that you can listen to via MP3, following along with a pdf of the lecture slideshow; all readings are easily accessed via hyperlinks; homework is an option for any overachievers out there, but you won’t be able to turn it in

Start date: Anytime

Sign up here!

Nutrition and Health Part I: Macronutrients and Overnutrition

School: Wageningen University, through EdX (Wageningen is a life sciences university in the Netherlands whose mission is “to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life”)

Instructor: Sander Kersten, Professor Division of Human Nutrition

Description from Wageningen: “Food plays a central role in our society but few people actually understand what it does to our bodies. Learn more about nutrition and how our diet profoundly impacts our current and future health.This introductory nutrition course addresses the relationship between nutrition and human health with a focus on health problems related to overnutrition. In this course, Professor Sander Kersten from Wageningen University will introduce you to the chemistry of the three macronutrients fat, carbohydrate and protein. You will learn how macronutrients are absorbed, stored, and metabolized for energy, and you will gain a contemporary view of how different types of fats, carbohydrates and proteins affect human health.”

Time required: Self-paced; if you stick to a weekly schedule, you can expect to spend 6-8 hours/week over 8 weeks

Format: People from around the world are enrolled in this course, starting at various times throughout the year; this means that although you’re watching recordings of lectures, you can interact with your classmates via online discussion forums and class-specific Facebook and Twitter pages; you’re also given exams and a grade

Start date: If you simply want to watch the lectures and interact with fellow students, you can enroll anytime before May 2017; if it’s a grade you’re after, you’ll need to complete your exams by October 2016

Continue your studies: This course is the first of a 3-part series; continue on with Part II: Micronutrients and Malnutrition and Part III: Food Safety

Sign up here!

The Science of Gastronomy

School: The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, through Coursera

Instructors: King Chow, Professor and Lam Lung Yeung, Associate Professor

Description from Hong Kong University: “This course introduces a number of basic scientific principles underpinning the methodology of cooking, food preparation and the enjoyment of food. All topics covered have a strong basis in biology, chemistry, and physics application. Among others, they include the consumption of cooked food, the physiological and evolutionary implication of the senses, geographic and cultural influences on food, and the rationale behind food preparation. We will also discuss issues such as coupling of senses to improve sense stimulation; altering flavor by chemical means; and modification of the coloration to improve the appearance of dishes. Following the video demonstrations of the scientific principles of cooking, you will learn to recognize the key ingredients and their combinations for preparing good healthy food.

Time required: 3-4 hours/week for 6 weeks

Format: The course provides video lectures and reading materials and you’ll be challenged to complete peer-graded assignments and pass quizzes; interaction with your peers is part of the learning experience

Start date: September 13, 2016

Sign up here!

Global Food Security: Addressing the Challenge

School: Lancaster University (England), through FutureLearn

Instructor: Bill Davies, Distinguished Professor

Description from Lancaster University: “In this course, we introduce the issue of food security and explore some of the different ways in which it has been described both in research and in practice and consider key concerns for the future. Our central concern is ‘How we will feed an extra two billion people by the middle of this century?’ Focussing both on UK agriculture and on food supply chains in other parts of the world, we will examine how food has shaped our environmental and social landscapes. We will see that, while everyone would agree that food security is ‘a good thing’, ideas about what it means in practice and how it should be achieved vary tremendously. Proposed developments to address global food insecurity range from technological inventions in the efficacy of large-scale agriculture through social and cultural innovations in local food production and consumption. You’ll be exploring a number of topics that address many issues including: Is food security really just about food? Should we have concerns about health, social justice, environmental degradation and cultural diversity? What is the role of technology and innovation in promoting food security? And much more.

Time required: 3 hours/week for 8 weeks

Format: Interact with students from any continent in this course. You’ll watch videos, listen to audio, and read articles—with the ability to comment and ask questions of other students or the instructor through any of the media channels. Students will be using the hashtag #FLfoodsecurity on Twitter during the course. Expect quizzes and homework.

Start date: August 29, 2016

Sign up here!

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