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From a very young age, I was fascinated with food and how it was used in my culture. As a woman of African descent, there were many rules about food, how it was prepared, and when and how certain foods could be eaten. For example, there were specific foods that should be eaten during pregnancy, at weddings, at funerals, and at holidays such as Christmas. In addition, how to prepare these foods was of particular importance.   

This interest in cultural food rules, coupled with an aptitude for the sciences and an early acquired hobby of preparing and cooking foods per the cultural rules initially led me to the science of food as a potential career pathway. I wanted to research these rules to determine whether they were beneficial or detrimental to us, and to put some scientific basis to improve them.  I was also curious about the wastage of the many in-season fruits and vegetables around me.

A Young, African-American Woman in Predominately White Classrooms

I was fortunate to come from a family who believed strongly in the power of education, therefore, pursuing further studies in my field of choice was an expectation that I worked toward. After focusing on science and taking every food-related class available at my high school, I decided a teaching and research career in nutrition and the science of food was the right path for me.

Throughout my undergrad and graduate studies, I found myself at predominantly white institutions where there weren’t many students that looked like me. This could have deterred me from accomplishing my goals. However, the work ethic, confidence, and values my family instilled in me, my volunteer experiences in communities from a young age, my early fascination with food and how it works, and my aptitude for the sciences helped me maintain my focus. In addition, studying in these environments gave me the opportunity to work with people of many different ethnicities, which ultimately taught me to be open to other cultures and appreciate our differences.

Unfortunately, like many students, I also had my share of negative experiences throughout my education, including a professor who told me this profession is for a certain group of Caucasian women and an advisor who said I could never pass my biology and chemistry classes. Comments like these might have temporarily dampened my spirit, but they only made me work harder.

The Shifting Landscape

Early in my career, there were rarely many others who looked like me at meetings, expert panels, conferences, and other events I attended. In the workplace, I did not see many African American faculty members in this area either. At times, I have been overlooked and ignored because I am a woman of African descent, but I am confident in my knowledge and continue contributing with all that I have.

Over the last 20 years, the landscape of the profession has changed a bit from a diversity standpoint, but we still have a way to go. More people of African descent are entering the field than they used to. In addition, two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) offer IFT-approved undergraduate degrees in food science. Today, we see more people from different ethnic groups and age groups in leadership positions, as well as more women. As an industry, we are definitely moving in the right direction from a diversity standpoint.

Guiding the Next Generation of African American Food Scientists

I am most passionate about improving food communication through research and teaching, promoting the science of food and careers in the science of food, encouraging volunteerism within the field, supporting food science professionals and students, and enabling diversity from a national/international perspective, so the collegiate environment is a natural fit. I am grateful to have the opportunity to share these passions with students at a Tuskegee University, a HBCU in Alabama.

Culturally, many African American families do not often encourage their children to study the science of food or even make a career in it, so the first challenge is in the home.  Since many African American students do not know much about the science of food as a career, I encourage and expose them to the possibilities—the different job areas, the diversity in the jobs, potentially good salaries in the food industry, and opportunities for research or academia if they so desire. I connect them to other African American food scientists in the field.  I encourage them to become members and volunteers of IFT, which will open to them a new range of possibilities.  I take them to professional meetings and encourage them to submit abstracts to food-related conferences and meetings to broaden their horizons on the field of study.

I am also passionate about sharing my expertise at a global level where the field of study is mostly unknown and few options for employment exist.  Since international development is important at Tuskegee University, it has afforded me the opportunity to teach and research the science of food, not only on campus, but abroad as well. I have worked on faculty and graduate student research in Tanzania and Ghana. I have served as a volunteer in the science of food at university and community levels in countries such as Mozambique, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.  I was involved in the establishment of the food engineering/food science department and development of the food science capstone course at Catholic University in Chimio, Mozambique. Each of these experiences have not only enriched my life but allowed me to give more to my students as I prepare them for effective careers in the science of food.

Keeping the Focus

As the U.S. celebrates Black History Month, it is important to acknowledge the many African American men and women who have made an impact on the science of food in big and small ways. It is perhaps even more important to ensure science-minded young adults from all ethnicities see the vast opportunities for them in the science of food.

The food industry is moving fast, and challenges abound. We need the creativity, ingenuity, knowledge, and passion of people with a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences to solve the problems that lie ahead. Together, we can do amazing things.

Author: Adelia Bovell-Benjamin, PhD, CFS,
Professor of Food and Nutritional Sciences, Tuskegee University

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