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Background and work to date, September 2013

This project narrative will be updated quarterly to reflect progress towards project objectives.
  • Over 7 million Northeast citizens are food insecure. Low-income communities are disproportionately affected by lack of access to healthy, affordable foods. Families in those communities face many barriers to achieving food security. Challenges to food security for everyone in the region also come from climate change, farmland loss, and sourcing most of our food from outside our region. 
  • EFSNE, a five-year project supported by the US Department of Agriculture, started operations in March 2011.
  • The overall project goal is to determine whether greater reliance on regionally produced food could improve food access in disadvantaged communities, while also benefiting farmers, food supply chain firms and others in the food system.
  • The project encompasses two different definitions of food security. The first is the ability of a country or region to continually produce a significant portion of its staple foods. The second is adequate access to an affordable food supply in low income communities. The latter is more specifically called community food security which takes into account households’ local context and measures transportation, land use, infrastructure, access to nutrient dense foods, and more.
  • It is a systems project – engaging the entire food chain from production to consumption in a collaborative effort among nine teams.
  • It is an integrated project, defined as one with research, outreach and education components. Researchers are located in 11 different institutions including universities, nonprofits and government agencies. It also engages a national advisory committee.
  • It is multi-disciplinary, including researchers from approximately 12 different disciplines and pursuing multiple types of biological, economic, and sociological research.
  • The project focuses on 13 underserved community sites within nine locations across the Northeast, defined as 12 states from Maine to WV.  Teams work with one or two stores in each site on the tasks described below.
  • The focal point of all of the research teams is a full-diet market basket of 8 foods that are or can be produced or processed in the Northeast states in significant quantities. These are milk, bread, ground beef, potatoes, apples, cabbage, canned peaches and frozen broccoli.
  • There are four research teams, as well as education, outreach, location, evaluation and administrative teams.
  • The task of the Consumption Team (CONS) is to assess current and potential community level constraints and opportunities for improving access to regionally produced healthy food for people in the community sites. The team has:
    1. (1) developed a number of survey instruments and training manuals;
    2. (2) conducted focus groups in each site and begun to produce write-ups;
    3. (3) completed the first set of intercept surveys of store customers and started the analysis of these data;
    4. (4) inventoried the market basket items in stores;
    5. (5) conducted research to quantify the role of both demand and supply factors as determinants of access to food outlets; and
    6. (6) characterized the purchasing habits of low-income households of some selected market basket foods.
    More recently, in collaboration with the Outreach Team, they have developed a community involvement plan to engage more community members in the work of the project and other related activities.
  • The tasks of the Distribution Team (DIST) are to identify and assess appropriate food supply chain practices in underserved areas of the Northeast, compare site-specific, regional and global chains, and identify policy interventions. The team is engaged in a number of activities. They are mapping and modeling the supply chains of two different market basket foods sold in the stores in each low-income site. Retailer interviews have been completed and eight stores and several of the store case studies have been completed. A manual has been prepared to train people who will complete the other supply chain interviews. Team members are also developing country-wide optimization models of the flow of four foods (dairy, cabbage, apples and beef) in the market basket. These models are employed to assess the economic and environmental impacts of increased localization of food supply chains in the Northeast. Other work includes the recording of inter-regional commodity trade flows by freight and commodity transport cost; the calculation of the demand elasticities of regional substitutions of commodities; and the development of several other data sets.
  • The task of the Production Team (PROD) is to quantify the current and potential future capacity of the urban and rural Northeast to produce food that meets consumer needs. The team’s work has included:
    1. (1) the development of a baseline data set of the production of more than 100 crops, multiple animal species and seafood landings in the Northeast region, and the calculation of a regional self-reliance ratio comparing agricultural production to food availability. A manuscript of this work is in review;
    2. (2) initial research on a Northeast footprint for food production (annual per capita land requirements, potential carrying capacity);
    3. (3) quantifying spatial interdependencies of major crops to assess production footprints, cropping intensity, and other facets;
    4. (4) continuing work on productivity indices for a number of crops and livestock products;
    5. (5) a narrative on energy prices and food miles;
    6. (6) geospatial connections among farms and processors in peri-urban areas;
    7. (7) the development of data sets to estimate urban agricultural productivity in the projects six urban locations; and
    8. (8) maps of slaughter facilities and regional processing sites.
    Also being studied are cropping system dynamics, temporal spatial analyses, cropping sequence mosaics (rotations, intensities), and the association of state areas overlapped by crops in different years to allow calculation of land areas needed to sustain a particular commodity cropping system.
  • The task of the Scenarios and Modeling Team (SCEMO) is to guide and integrate the multiple models being developed in the project. The goal is to provide a coherent, trans- disciplinary analysis of the potential of a regional food system to enhance food security in the Northeast. The team was created 18 months into the project. The SCEMO team has worked with the research teams to create flow diagrams of their work and the type of data being used in their models. It has created a list of four broad framing questions to guide modeling efforts. It has drafted scenarios oriented towards the issues of the project which include climate change, land use, and energy. One of the market basket foods, apples, has been chosen as the focus for joint modeling efforts.
  • The tasks of the Outreach Team (OUTR) are to disseminate knowledge and research insights generated from the project to policymakers, producers, distributors, consumers and other stakeholders, and to engage community members and other interested parties in the project. In the first year of the project the Outreach team was instrumental in establishing a national eXtension Community of Practice on Community, Local and Regional Food Systems with colleagues from across the country. The Outreach Team prepared a stakeholder engagement matrix to identify and engage a variety of project stakeholders. This was recently integrated into a community involvement plan developed by the CONS team. The OUTR Team also developed project communication activities such as a website and newsletter. The OUTR Team prepared a grant application to USDA to put on a workshop that would bring the researchers and site leaders from the project together in 2014. OUTR is also keeping track of the publications and presentations made by project members and giving them a wider audience. Presentations so far have been made about the project at the 2011 and 2012 NESAWG conferences and at the Agriculture Food and Human Values Society meeting in June 2013. There have been a number of other presentations on specific pieces of project work.
  • The task of the Education Team (EDUC) is to prepare students with the diverse skills needed to research and develop sustainable food systems. The group has incorporated food systems concepts into existing courses at Delaware State University, Penn State University and Tufts University. A directed-study class is offered at Tufts to engage students in independent research on EFSNE related topics. A number of graduate students are engaged with the project from Cornell, Johns Hopkins, PSU and Tufts. A review of literature on internships was completed at PSU which has been used to structure an undergraduate internship component of the project.
  • Collaborations in the project to date have generated a number of cross-disciplinary lessons, insights and even novel applications of existing methods. For example, agronomists and soil scientists in the PROD group will use to statistical clustering analyses adopted from the economic supply chain analysis to study spatial patterns in crop yields. Fruitful cross-fertilization and learning is also occurring among the nutrition scientists and economists, for example, in studying human consumer behavior. All teams worked together to generate a set of questions for the growers supply chain survey when it was realized that this was the only place in the project where we had direct access to producers. Finally, the scenarios and modeling (SCEMO) team (described above) will work for several years to share decisions about the assumptions, variables, and types of models used to build a variety of simulations and scenarios, and develop those models within each team and across the project.
  • The project is supported by a five-year grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, #2011-68004-30057. The project director is Stephan Goetz, the director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State University. The deputy director is Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant located in Maryland.
  • The entire project team of faculty, educators, advisors, practitioners and students has already benefited substantially from intensive discussions on various biweekly conference calls and three all-project meetings, as well as various smaller subgroup meetings. All have gained a much better understanding of how other scientific disciplines operate and how scientific research activities differ from applied outreach efforts, in a project that is doing both. Those team members who were already well anchored in their communities representing the in-depth study sites have generously shared lessons with and provided insights to the team members who’ve had to develop stakeholder relations in the new communities in which we are working. Team member learning and awareness-building ranges widely, from how to contact meaningful focus groups, to how to develop and use sophisticated mathematical and statistical models. We have indeed become our own project learning community.