Penn State Receives $5 Million Grant To Study Food Systems

Research to examine how regional food systems can benefit communities and improve the economic and social welfare of farmers, distributors, retailers and consumers.

University Park, PA: As part of a national initiative to reduce food insecurity, faculty in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will direct a new $5 million project to study whether greater reliance on regionally produced foods could improve food access and affordability for disadvantaged communities, while also benefiting farmers and others in the food supply chain.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project -- "Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast with Regional Food Systems" -- brings together researchers, educators, entrepreneurs and community leaders from a 12-state region to shed light on how the food system can better serve all Americans.

Project director Stephan Goetz is professor of agricultural and regional economics and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State. He will administer project sites in several cities, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Syracuse, Baltimore and Charleston, WV, as well as in rural areas such as Essex County, VT, Sussex County, DE, and Madison County, NY, in collaboration with locally based faculty and other experts.

Cooperating on the five-year project at Penn State are Alessandro Bonanno, assistant professor of agricultural economics, Deno DeCiantis, director of the Penn State Center: Engaging Pittsburgh and Clare Hinrichs, associate professor of rural sociology.

"More than 7 million Northeast citizens are food-insecure," Goetz says. "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. At the same time, our farmers are struggling, farmland is disappearing and most of our food comes from outside the region.

"The project will explore the benefits of re-regionalizing the food system. We suggest that with our region's geography and potential to develop regional supply chains, we can produce, distribute and meet a greater share of our population's food needs in ways that improve food access and availability specifically for disadvantaged communities."

Goetz says the research will examine how regional food systems can make more efficient use of natural resources, benefit communities and improve the economic and social welfare of farmers, distributors, retailers, and consumers. It will use a systems approach to connect food production, processing and distribution with a community's total food environment.

"This food environment consists of all the stores, markets, household or community gardens, and any other outlets that supply food to residents," he says. "We will study strategically selected stores and their neighborhoods in nine urban and rural partner communities across the Northeast. We will involve community members along with planners, entrepreneurs, agricultural experts and students in learning opportunities on the ground and online."

In addition, the project will assess the overall capacity of the Northeast to satisfy more of its food needs. Using large-scale GIS analyses across the nearly 300 counties in the Northeast, researchers will assess production capacity -- including climate and soil suitability for different crops -- food processing infrastructure, distribution channels, retail stores and consumption preferences.

Goetz says the project is unique and significant in three ways.

"First, we focus explicitly on the regional rather than national or local level," he explains. "The regional scale -- which incorporates local aspects -- may be optimal for assuring adequate and affordable food supplies over time.

"Second, we take a systems approach that links production, distribution and consumption processes in a deliberate and logical way to expand knowledge and understanding of these complex systems and support action on the ground in our partner communities.

"Finally, this project will develop and integrate innovative research methods," he says. "We will develop models to study these complex systems, including future production, distribution and consumption scenarios. This project will help us propose and test promising avenues for improving food access in disadvantaged Northeast communities and elsewhere."

Other participating institutions include Columbia University, Cornell University, Delaware State University, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Tufts University, University of Vermont, West Virginia State University, USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Economic Research Service, and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

More information on the project is available online at