Iowa vs. California: Students explore two states' food systems

Group of students and faculty gathered around a wooden sign for Hilmar Cheese Company. Landscaping and a waterfall can be seen behind them.
Seven students participated in a Study USA trip to California earlier this summer. The experience was led by Kate Gilbert and Erin Bergquist, instructors in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The group went on various tours of food-related entities in California, noting how they differed from those found in Iowa.

By Whitney Baxter

How do food systems in Iowa and California compare to each other? A group of students explored the answer to that question earlier this summer during a Study USA trip to California.

Seven students participated in the inaugural “Comparing Food Systems - Iowa vs. California” course led by Kate Gilbert, associate teaching professor, and Erin Bergquist, clinical professor, in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The Study USA program, offered through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, provides opportunities for students to learn about diverse cultures, food and agriculture systems, natural resources and life sciences within the United States.

One of the class goals was to expose students to foods difficult to see grown and processed in the Midwest. Another was to teach students about the complexity of the food systems so they can understand how decisions get made and change can occur.

Christabel Forney holds a large abalone clam in the palm of her hand. She is wearing glasses, a hat and a button up shirt. Two other people can be seen in the background, along with holding troughs for the clams.
Christabel Forney, senior in culinary food science, holds a large abalone clam at Cultured Abalone, one of the many stops during the Study USA trip.

Gilbert said California raises more than 400 types of foods, including a variety of produce, nuts, dairy and seafood, making it an ideal place to take students.

To prepare for the trip, students enrolled in a pre-departure course, which included tours of different Iowa food production facilities to compare to ones in California. Students also learned about the food systems’ frameworks and components, such as soil and water usage, production inputs, labor needs, regulations, distribution and markets, nutrition and food accessibility.

During their two-week experience in California, the group went on more than 30 tours and visits throughout the state. Stops included dairy farms and creameries, grape vineyards and wineries, olive and almond orchards, berry and produce farms, nut, fig and vegetable processing operations, and seafood fishing and farming. They also learned about California water rights and regulations during a tour of the Turlock Irrigation District.

“It was definitely a fast-paced and jam-packed two weeks, but we had the opportunity to see a plethora of different businesses, processing plants and farms, which broadened my experience and knowledge about the food industry and food system not only California but as a whole,” said Christabel Forney, senior in culinary food science.

Claudia Arriaga, an international graduate student in food science and human nutrition, signed up for the trip to learn more about U.S. food systems’ logistics, organization and structure. Like Forney, she appreciated the variety of food-producing systems they visited, especially the stop at the abalone (marine snails) farm.

“We got to see and hear from so many people taking different approaches to food production, and they all were very valuable in establishing a view of how food is produced in the U.S.,” Arriaga said. “It definitely sparked my interest in learning more about the science behind food production, the environmental impacts of food production, and the lives and well-being of the people producing the food we eat every day.”

Gilbert and Bergquist are pleased with this inaugural trip. They are grateful for all the guest lecturers and tour guides who gave their time to the students and for the financial assistance of the Richard and Nancy Degner Food Systems Domestic Travel Fund.

“It was a wonderful trip, where I learned as much as the students,” Gilbert said. “The students got to experience the passion and commitment of so many people growing and producing food. They also enjoyed getting to know each other better, spending time on the beach, and eating as much fresh fruit as possible.”

Five things learned on the trip

  1. One out of every 4-5 pounds of common cheeses like cheddar, gouda and mozzarella sold in the United States comes from Hilmar Dairy in California.
  2. Olive oils have complex flavor profiles you don’t realize until you take part in an olive oil tasting.
  3. California produces 80% or more of the world’s almonds and exports 70% of the almonds grown in the state.
  4. A good yield for spinach is 6,000 pounds per acre and for broccoli is 15,000 pounds per acre.
  5. It takes 3-5 years for abalones to reach sufficient size to be sold.