July 27, 2023

Faculty spotlight: Q and A with Eleni Pliakoni, Ph.D.

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Kansas State University Olathe is proud to offer students multiple pathways in urban food systems.

Learners who want to increase the availability and nutritional quality of locally grown fresh produce and the economic prosperity around these efforts will benefit from enrolling in the master’s program or graduate certificate at K-State Olathe.  

In today’s Q and A, we’ll explore exactly what learners can expect when choosing a horticulture program — and how studying urban food systems at K-State Olathe can make an incredible difference in their careers and local communities.   

Eleni D. Pliakoni, Ph.D., is a professor of urban food production and postharvest handling who brings years of experience working with urban food systems. She teaches a robust assortment of classes designed to help students propel their careers forward, including courses on urban agriculture, professional development in urban food systems and postharvest handlings and physiology of horticultural crops. 

 We sat down with Pliakoni to discuss some of the work she’s doing here at K-State Olathe — and to find out what makes our horticulture M.S. with emphasis in urban foods systems degree and the urban food systems graduate certificate so unique. 

Q: What sparked your interest in urban foods and horticulture? 

A: I’m a third-generation horticulturist. My grandfather and my mother also were horticulturists. As a child, my mother told me a story about how flowers can talk. So, I was exposed to the field since I was really tiny. We have olive groves back in Greece, and I spent summers at the village tending the gardens with my grandmother. Spending time in nature has always been something that’s important to me. 

I planned to study flowers in the beginning, but at some point, I realized that I wanted to learn more about food production and wine. So, I moved on to fruits and vegetables. I have worked on many unique projects during my time in horticulture and came to the U.S as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida.  

Q: What kind of research do you do here at K-State Olathe? 

A: The main focus of our research here is identifying appropriate interventions pre- or postharvest that can help small acreage growers who may not have a lot of technology in their hands to maintain or extend the shelf-life of their produce. We’re privileged to work closely with the Olathe Horticulture Research and Extension Center, so we have the ability to control the growing conditions and then evaluate the effect to the quality of the produce. 

My main goal is to help reduce food losses in general by extending shelf-life and maintaining quality of produce. We started that research in 2014 with a grant we received. We study how high tunnels or open fields can affect losses, as well as how different packaging can maintain the quality of produce. 

We have publications on spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and other crops. We’ve also worked with sweet potatoes. For the experiments with strawberries, we mainly used varieties that were not bred for high tunnels, but we were able to identify a couple that worked well here in Kansas. We also have used different mulches to see if we could manipulate the fruit quality. We also work with the consumer sensory group here at K-State Olathe to do consumer analysis and acceptability. 

Q: What urban foods programs do we offer here at K-State? 

A: We offer a master’s degree with two tracks as well as a graduate certificate. 

For the master’s program, we offer a thesis track and a professional track. They are both 30 credits. The master’s track with thesis has research required. The professional track has two credits of reports required. Our professional track will be available completely online starting this fall. Learners will have the option to attend classes in-person if they prefer, but we wanted to attract students around the country by providing an online option. 

The graduate certificate in interdisciplinary urban food systems is 12 credits and is fully online. 

We also started the Urban Foods Systems Symposium in 2016. This is a bi-annual conference that rotates locations but is in Kansas alternating years. In 2024, the symposium will be held at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. 

Q: Who should consider going into the urban foods program? 

A: Anyone who has a bachelor’s degree and an interest to learn more about urban food systems is welcome to join our program. We are proud of the fact that many of our students do not have a background in horticulture and enjoy the learning environment that this diversity provides. Because this area is so multi-disciplinary, someone who studies sociology may want to learn more about urban food systems. Similarly, someone who works in public health could have a desire to learn more. Because of that, we don’t restrict admissions in terms of a bachelor’s degree. 

If a student doesn’t have a horticulture background, we do require a couple of prerequisites just so they’re able to understand the course content and we’re happy to discuss those on a case-by-case basis with potential students. 

Q: What kinds of career paths can students pursue when they study urban foods? 

A: Students can pursue a variety of diverse career options when they choose to study urban foods. Many of the students go into extension or may work at farming-related nonprofit organizations. Students can even use their new skills to run their own farm or nonprofit. Of course, they also can continue for a Ph.D. and go the academic route. 

Our program has a 99% job placement for graduates, which is incredibly important since it means we’re setting students up for success. Many cities are now looking for people who have an understanding of urban food systems, especially to identify food deserts. 

Q: You’re teaching a hands-on class this fall that involves traveling to urban farms in other places. Can we talk a little bit about that class and what potential students can expect? 

A: Absolutely! This course started in 2015. I really wanted to expose students in the program to the different players in the food system. This really is an important way for students to learn more about urban food systems from the people that are already working in this area. During the five-day trip, we’ll visit 15-20 different sites. Students will have the opportunity to use an audit tool to identify how each site that we visit contributes to food security. 

In the past, we’ve been to Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans and Hawaii. This year, we’ll be visiting Arkansas. Every place we go, I discover something new and I can’t wait to see what my students and I learn this year. 

Eleni D. Pliakoni, Ph.D., is a professor in urban food production and postharvest handling in the department of horticulture and natural resources at Kansas State University and works at the K-State Olathe campus. You can learn more about her directly on the K-State Olathe website.  

If you’re interested in urban food systems, be sure to register for upcoming webinars on our M.S. in horticulture with an emphasis in urban food systems. 

This program is supported with funding provided by the Johnson County Education Research Triangle.

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