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Ohio State, UC Davis Researchers Launch “Smart Regional Foodsheds” Project to Improve Food Security in Columbus, Sacramento

Although food is mass produced to feed the world’s population, health and nutritional disparities like food insecurity still affect millions of lives. Working to address these disparities is Dr. Ayaz Hyder, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio State University College of Public Health. Dr. Hyder is co-principal investigator on a new National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project aimed at improving food security and community health through smarter regional food systems.

[Photo: Dr. Ayaz Hyder]

The project, titled “Developing an Informational Infrastructure for Building Smart Regional Foodsheds,” stores diverse public data from multiple partners in information systems called “smart foodsheds.” Communities can then access the information to track where food is grown, processed and transported; learn about local food sources; and create partnerships to bring new food sources to communities in need.

“In the long term, what it’s doing is building the foundation for a well-connected system,” Dr. Hyder explained. “It’s building a foundation that others can then leverage to sustainably address food insecurity.”

Collaborators on the project include Dr. Casey Hoy, professor and Kellogg Endowed Chair of agricultural ecosystem management at Ohio State, and researchers from University of California-Davis and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Dr. Hyder and Dr. Hoy — who also serves as the faculty director for the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), a focus area in Ohio State’s Discovery Themes — will work on food systems data for Columbus respectively from their colleagues in California. The two teams will connect and transfer data methods and technology to strengthen their “foodshed” informatics.

“The first step is community engagement to make sure we don’t develop something that no one needs,” Dr. Hyder said. “We want to be purposeful about it by engaging with those who are producing the food, who are transporting the food, who are processing the food, who are buying the food and who are eating the food — to ask ‘what would this connected system and data about food look like?’”

Ohio’s food insecurity surpasses the nation’s average of 5.6 percent of food insecure families at 7.5 percent as of 2015. The Smart Regional Foodsheds project hopes to change that.

“Nationwide Children’s Hospital and other health care systems see thousands of people who come into the Emergency Room (ER) or outpatient clinics and say that they’re food insecure, meaning that they have to choose between paying for food or paying for rent,” Dr. Hyder said. “So what we’re developing is this linkage between food system data and health data that lays the foundation for future research projects and policy analysis by stakeholders in the local food system, such as health care providers, United Way, Mid-Ohio Foodbank and City of Columbus. Ultimately, we believe that data-driven solutions will be essential in eliminating food insecurity and improving human health in the Columbus region.”

The project will kick off at the beginning of 2018, at which point Dr. Hyder and his colleagues will begin planning which community groups and leaders to engage with. It will be funded by NSF at $500,000 and is projected to end in 2021.