2014 News

At a community center and a convent, at a business development center and a food pantry, and in several other locations across the Northeast, people have been talking very intentionally about food during the past few months. These facilitated conversations, or focus groups, are one of the Consumption Team’s major research activities aimed at understanding people’s experiences accessing healthy food in their communities.

For the past decade, there have been numerous public and private interventions in the US aimed at increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, yet the actual per capita daily intake of these foods remains well below the levels recommended by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the case of dark leafy greens, for example, one recent estimate suggests that consumption would have to double before coming close to the USDA’s recommendations (Eaton et al., 2013). This raises an important but largely ignored research question: if the demand for dark leafy greens increases, what impacts will this have on supply chain structure and performance? To shed light on this important policy question, members of the Distribution Team developed a supply chain model of the U.S. cabbage sector that includes production, storage, transport and consumption.

City parks, abandoned lots, sprawling rooftops, and median strips — when put into production, these plots of land can become surprisingly fruitful urban farms and gardens. Given that the Northeast is home to several large cities, it only makes sense to ask what their capacity might be for meeting some of the region’s food needs.

A new course launched this spring at Tufts University offered students a first-hand look at the suite of sophisticated tools that scientists use to study food systems. Titled "Food Systems Modeling and Analysis," the course was designed to equip students with an understanding of the methods and data sources used to conduct various food systems models and analyses. Students also became acquainted with the major research findings that have resulted from the use of food system models to date.

Next month, a group of EFSNE project team members will come together with grocery store owners/operators and community leaders from several of the project’s study locations for an interactive learning opportunity. The workshop is being organized jointly by the Outreach Team and Consumption Team, and members from each of the EFSNE project’s research teams will participate.

The virtual Food System Modeling Learning Community that the Outreach Team launched earlier this year has since held two interactive learning sessions during which food system researchers shared information with each other about how they use modeling in their own research programs.

If the Education Team needed an ambassador, it could be Lauren Chenarides. A doctoral candidate in Agricultural Economics at Penn State, she is one of a number of students benefiting from the team’s efforts to train future food system scientists. But she’s also done some of that training herself, teaching a course that immersed 40 Penn State undergraduate students in the concepts of food access, food security, and regional food systems.

As the Outreach Team makes plans to extend the work of the EFSNE Project into its eight project sites, there is one thing team members know for sure: each of the communities is different. A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work. To help determine the best approaches for engaging with project communities, the team first wanted to find out how ready each community is to enhance access to healthier foods.

In an earlier newsletter, we reported on the Production Team’s development of a new geospatial crop-modeling tool called the Geospatial Agricultural Management and Crop Assessment Framework (GAMCAF), which was used initially to quantify the region’s production capacity for a single crop: the potato. But that was just the beginning for GAMCAF. Now the researchers have incorporated a corn-crop model and climate data into the platform, allowing them to examine even more production scenarios for the region.

The national eXtension Community of Practice (eCoP) around Community, Local and Regional Food Systems (CLRFS), which the Outreach Team was instrumental in establishing, has just announced its public launch. The eCoP is designed to provide information and networking opportunities for educators, community-based practitioners, policy makers, farmers/growers, families, and those individuals involved in building equitable, health-promoting, resilient, and economically balanced food systems.

The cover story of the July 2014 issue of CSA News is a six-page feature about the EFSNE project.

Some people might have a preconceived idea of what a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood is like — how it looks, the kinds of foods it stocks, and how well its customers are served. Consumption Team member John Eshleman did, but that was before he became intimately familiar with a tool developed to capture the substantial diversity that exists among food stores.

The circuitous path that most food follows from farm to table is largely unknown to industry outsiders. In fact, this food supply chain is so complex that ten EFSNE researchers — including economists, engineers, and a food-systems expert — are working together to better understand it, so they can identify what can be produced and distributed optimally in the Northeast.

If we want to know how much food the Northeast could produce for its consumers, then figuring out how much it already produces is a good place to start. That's no small task, given that the Northeast has nearly 24.7 million acres of land in yearly agricultural production, and millions of consumers. Yet, it is a task the Production Team completed recently, estimating the region's "self-reliance" for more than 100 foods.

One primary objective of the EFSNE Outreach Team is to share information and insights generated by the project to its stakeholders. Among the project’s many contributions to date is the innovative use of various modeling methods. The Outreach Team is about to launch a learning community around this topic.

Based in Pittsburgh, PA, Penn State Senior Olivia Lindsey spent six months interning with the EFSNE project. From conducting site-based research to organizing community events, her internship activities bolstered her appetite for a career in food systems work.