Indiana University researchers are part of a trans-disciplinary team that has been awarded a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create more sustainable and equitable food systems in the Midwest and beyond. The five-year integrated project is funded through the Sustainable Agricultural Systems program of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Jennifer Meta Robinson, professor of practice in IU Bloomington’s Department of Anthropology within the College of Arts and Sciences and the Emerging Area of Research-funded Sustainable Food Systems Science, is a co-principal investigator and will lead a team developing college-level learning modules based on the project’s findings.
“We gained a keen appreciation during the COVID-19 pandemic of how unanticipated events can cause major disruptions to the U.S. supply chain,” said Professor Robinson. “Through this research project we will learn from the past in order to plan for future shocks, especially anticipating how multiple shocks can impact the food system and put particular populations at risk. Anthropology’s tools for understanding the human experience of food production, consumption, and meaning-making will provide essential resources for the project’s success.”
Food systems—the production, distribution, and consumption of food along supply chains—at the local and regional levels are susceptible to a number of disruptions, which researchers refer to as “shocks.” The COVID-19 pandemic, climate events, and foodborne pathogens are examples of shocks that can cause disturbances in supply chains, ultimately leading to food and nutrition security challenges.
A single supply chain interruption can be difficult to overcome, but shocks often occur simultaneously and without warning. While previous research on this topic has focused on individual supply chain interferences in isolation, the overarching goal of the new effort is to build food systems that are able to withstand several shocks happening concurrently.
The full team of researchers, educators and extension experts is led by Brent Ross, associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, and associate chairperson for undergraduate programs in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“The frequency of these complex events is only expected to increase over the coming years,” Ross said. “It’s essential to gain a greater understanding of these relationships to improve decision making that allows for disruptions to have as minimal of an impact on food and nutrition security as possible, especially for vulnerable U.S. populations.”
The team has outlined a series of objectives that aim to address the interrelated ways in which shocks affect food systems. Researchers will evaluate characteristics of supply chains that may put them at risk, historical and projected shocks, and mitigation strategies.
Using artificial intelligence and decision-support tools, researchers will model multiple shocks to simulate an assortment of scenarios, factoring in vulnerable populations.
“Our project will initially focus on the Midwest to develop cutting-edge approaches, ” said Jianguo (Jack) Liu, a co-principal investigator of the project along with Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), and University Distinguished Professor in MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “We will also train a new generation of transdisciplinary scholars and practitioners so that the innovative approaches can be applied to other regions of the U.S., and even other countries,” said Liu.
The outcomes will be the basis for education of K-12 to graduate students, as well as outreach and extension resources that target local and regional policymakers, businesses, the agricultural community, and educators. Information will be shared through published papers, in-person and virtual presentations, policy briefs, stakeholder meetings, social media, newsletters and online extension materials.
“The field of anthropology has a long tradition of studying foodways from the ancient past to the present,” said Andrea Wiley, Chair of the Anthropology department. “Professor Robinson’s research and teaching on small-scale agriculture in the U.S. today presents an important opportunity for her project on shocks to improve food access for Hoosiers and others in the U.S. during challenging times.”
“Sustainable, resilient and equitable food systems are needed in every community, so we appreciate that the USDA has recognized the importance of this project,” Ross said. “Given the great demand for information on this topic, we will work diligently to disseminate our results across a wide range of platforms. That is an essential component of this work, getting resources into the hands of people who can implement it.”
The research at IU will fund graduate students as well as faculty reviewers. The IU team will also coordinate with K-12 learning specialists in Indiana and Michigan who are designing modules for public school audiences across the Midwest and beyond.
Joining Ross, Liu, and Robinson are researchers, educators and outreach specialists representing diverse departments at five universities along with those at partner institutions and organizations. The team brings valuable and complementary expertise that helps us capture a variety of perspectives, as well as increase the scale to locations that may be susceptible to different shocks.
The integrated research project includes participants from:
-Michigan State University
-North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
-The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
-The Global Food and Ag Network
-Mavin Global Company
-The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals
-The USDA Midwest Climate Hub
Robinson studies the human dimensions of small-scale alternative agriculture in the U.S. and is formerly president of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and director of IU’s award-winning Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Program.