Food Studies Program

In the Spotlight: Food Studies Professor Michael Hillard

Capitalizing on Connections

 Michael Hillard

 How did you get interested in food studies?
I think I got interested in Food Studies because of the book, Fast Food Nation, which is easily one of the greatest books about American society ever written. The book tells the story of how the corporatization of what became fast food transformed our society, our landscape, and the nature of work, consumption, and government policy. It really is a food studies text because it integrates all different kinds of perspectives about American life around the focus of the fast food industry.

Why do you think Food Studies is important?
In talking with others in the community and faculty, we recognized a massive change in what I would call the political culture of educated young milennials that there really is a sustainable food systems movement in Maine, around the country, and around the world. I’m someone who really believes in the importance of social change in the 21st century. What I see is that the food system has become a place for people to create a civic culture and a new economy that tries to address some of those fundamental problems that face us in the 21st century.

How did your career path lead you to this field?
I completed a doctorate in Economics from the University of Massachusetts in 1988. In my years as a doctoral student, I became deeply passionate about understanding the place of a worker in American capitalism, mainly historically. I teach classes on U.S. labor history, and I study the history of labor in Maine.

In the last 6-8 years, when I was thinking about the next place to go, I experimented with having one of my labor relations classes do a study on employment conditions in local restaurants. What I found at that point was that the new food economy was one of the most dynamic things happening in our community and many of the students in my classes worked in the food industry.

What excites you about USM’s new Food Studies Program?
Our program is a reflection of an established set of deep relationships with a very vibrant business and non-profit and policy community. That means that we know what the cutting edge issues are that people in the field are facing, that we are able to bring people who are in these fields into our classrooms, and we take our students from the classrooms out into the community. The glue of this is that we are able to offer our students paid internships, that cements students’ career development and our contributions to local businesses.

What advice do you have for students who want to work in food-related fields?
Being sophisticated enough to understand the greater system in which the community and industry operate, will make you stand out as an employee. Develop connections, and develop a core of skills and experience that will serve you further down the line.

What issues are you excited about teaching in your classes?
My classes are about understanding the strengths and weakness of capitalism, and the political economy. What I’m really excited about is that the biggest questions in the Western World have focused on identifying just what kind of economic social system we want to have. Do we want to have free market capitalism; a mixed economy with social security and environmental security? Do we want to have a social democracy? Do we allow capitalism to progressively destroy the environment?

What’s a fun fact about you?
I’m a really active person. I play rock and country music as a guitarist and I sometimes perform. I play basketball as much as I can, and I surf during the summer. I’m not a great surfer, but I do surf. I love going skiing in the winter.

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