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ARS Home » Northeast Area » Burlington, Vermont » Food Systems Research Unit » Research » Research Project #442516

Research Project: Assessing Environmental, Economic, Health, and Social Effects of Northeastern Food Systems

Location: Food Systems Research Unit

Project Number: 8090-44000-001-003-S
Project Type: Non-Assistance Cooperative Agreement

Start Date: Jan 1, 2022
End Date: Nov 1, 2024

Food systems are the networks of people, institutions, physical infrastructure, and natural resources through which food is grown, processed, distributed, sold, prepared, and eaten. The overarching objective of this agreement is to improve environmental, economic, production, health, and social sustainability in Northeastern food systems, including the health and nutrition of the people these systems feed. Through collaborative research and stakeholder engagement the Cooperator and the Agency will find solutions to address problems faced by producers, processors, consumers, and other food system actors to improve conditions not just for individual sectors, but for the overall food system. To achieve this overall goal, the Cooperator and the Agency will pursue the following objectives: • Develop an intellectual framework to study food systems over time; • As part of the framework, identify research needs, and develop mutual collaborations to address these research questions; • Form new partnerships with food system stakeholders to identify areas in need of research to solve real-world problems; and • Increase capacity for conducting food systems research in Vermont. An intellectual framework is needed to pursue food systems research in a consistent and coherent manner. Food systems can be enhanced through both incremental improvements in existing systems and transformational changes that create new systems. These changes may occur in individual sectors, such as farming, processing, or food service, but they must result in improvement in the performance of the whole system to be of societal benefit. The intellectual framework will enable coordinated research across multiple sectors over time that results in measurable improvements in the five dimensions of sustainability, including human health and nutrition. Stakeholder engagement in research is required for scientific discoveries to lead to practical solutions. Enhanced stakeholder engagement will lead to faster translation of research into practice and to more durable and effective solutions. It will also ensure that the research activities undertaken by scientists and researchers are relevant and important to communities. The Cooperator and the Agency will form new partnerships and relationships with food system stakeholders throughout the Northeast region. On-campus and off-campus relationships with stakeholders will be developed to help focus the research on relevant problems. Collaboration is essential to interdisciplinary research on food systems. The Cooperator and the Agency will leverage the skills and expertise of each organizations’ staff and scientists as well as the physical resources and stakeholder connections to conduct collaborative research on food systems. Investing in human capital will increase the capacity for the Cooperator and the Agency to conduct future food systems research. Human capital will grow to support an engaged scholarship approach and a fully functioning research center with multiple ongoing research projects.

The Cooperator and the Agency use a transdisciplinary approach to describe current Northeastern food systems and to identify potential strategies for enhancing sustainability and nutrition outcomes in the region. Transdisciplinary research involves the collaboration of researchers from multiple disciplines working together with stakeholders to answer a common question or solve a problem. The Cooperator and the Agency will follow a three-pronged approach: • Describe the environmental, economic, production, health, and social sustainability of current Northeastern food systems. • Identify potential strategies for enhancing the sustainability of Northeastern food systems and the nutrition of the people fed from these systems. • Develop capacity to monitor changes in food systems over time. To describe current systems, Cooperator and Agency scientists will develop the indicators and metrics used to assess environmental, economic, production, health, and social sustainability in food systems across a range of spatial scales and that can be used to monitor the systems over time. Cooperator and Agency scientists will determine the availability of existing data to measure these indicators and identify needs for new data collection. Cooperator and Agency scientists will collect primary and secondary data on existing food systems and on emerging alternative systems relevant to the Northeast context. To identify potential strategies for enhancing sustainability and human nutrition, Cooperator and Agency scientists will integrate the use of observation, experimentation, and modeling to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of food systems. Observation of existing systems and potential alternatives will be used to understand system structures and perceptions of individuals within food systems. Experiments in laboratory, farm, food businesses and field settings will test hypotheses about performance in specific sectors of the food system and provide critical input data for models. Models will integrate information, estimate changes in sustainability or nutrition outcomes under different scenarios, and identify key knowledge gaps. To monitor change in systems over time, Cooperator and Agency scientists will develop capacity to track food systems with demonstrated potential for improving sustainability and nutrition outcomes. They will follow procedures established to describe current food systems to monitor system performance. When possible, the Cooperator and the Agency will engage stakeholders in defining research questions, in data collection, and in interpretation of research results. To build the robust stakeholder relationships needed to pursue such participatory research, the Cooperator and the Agency will host research events and gatherings to engage with the public, stakeholders, and further enhance collaboration between the two organizations.