Community and regional food systems study gets a boost from USDA

April 11, 2011 By Terry Devitt

A University of Wisconsin–Madison study aimed at a better understanding of the ways to successfully develop sustainable local and regional food systems received a big boost this week (Monday, April 11) in the form of a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The award, announced this week by Roger Beachy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), will support an exploration of the changes needed in community and regional food systems to ensure the availability and increased consumption of healthy food in urban communities.

“More than 17 million American households lacked the resources to access sufficient food in 2009, and the people living in one-third of these households went hungry at least once during the year,” Beachy says. “The grants we are announcing today will help us better understand the needs of low-income communities. We are committed to helping Americans stay healthy to win the future by supporting the local development of the tools and resources necessary to meet their food needs.”

Community and regional food systems involve the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, often in proximity to large urban areas where food availability, hunger and malnutrition can be serious and persistent problems.

The new USDA award was made to a consortium of researchers led by Stephen Ventura, a UW–Madison professor of environmental studies and soil science, and his colleagues. Ventura’s group will partner with Growing Power, Inc., a farm and community food center in Milwaukee, as well as Michigan State University, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, and 10 community organizations.

The consortium will first seek to characterize emerging regional and community food systems and identify barriers to new activities and the limiting factors for expansion. The team will then seek out best practices in food production, processing, and distribution with an emphasis on sustainability and responsiveness to local needs.

The research will focus initially on the cities of Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, urban areas where food insecurity is considered extensive.

“This is an exciting project that brings together the research and education capacity of the university with on-the-ground knowledge of community groups such as Growing Power,” explains Ventura. “We hope and believe that this combination will lead to, as our project title suggests, identifying innovations and promoting successes.”

“We look forward to our partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and UW Extension, since the project will engage the types of urban communities that we know and have worked in for years,” says Will Allen, Growing Power founder and CEO.

The new grant was awarded through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which has a focus on food availability and food accessibility, concepts that imply adequate and reliable food availability for a population as well as the population’s ability to purchase food for a nutritious diet.