A University at Albany School of Public Health team has received more than $870,000 from an agriculture nonprofit and a combined effort of community partners to evaluate the food system in New York State and determine how food that would otherwise go to waste can effectively get into the hands of residents who need it.
According to a 2016 report from ReFED, 62.5 million pounds of food goes directly into landfills or is left unharvested on farms each year in the U.S. and 42 percent of it is fruits and vegetables. Food waste has long been associated with a host of negative environmental, health and social impacts, and according to Environmental Health Sciences assistant professor Dr. Beth Feingold, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Dr. Feingold and UAlbany professors Drs. Xiaobo Xue, Christine Bozlak and Akiko Hosler, along with Roni Neff of Johns Hopkins, have received $433,154 from the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), with additional funds being provided by local non-profits and state agencies, to address the association between food waste, food insecurity and increased cardio-metabolic risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
In the Capital Region, 10.7 percent or approximately 130,250 people are considered food insecure, meaning they are without reliable, regular access to nutritious food, according to Feeding America’s 2018 Mind the Meal Gap report. Dr. Feingold notes that research has shown the prevalence of obesity among the region’s low-income residents is 35 percent higher than the overall regional prevalence. Food pantries and emergency food programs are undeniably important in serving those with food insecurity, while at the same time, food systems are linked with a range of environmental impacts ranging from energy consumption, global warming and water quality degradation.
Drs. Feingold, Xue and their team assert that the benefits of diverting surplus produce to food insecure residents are likely twofold: it presents a unique solution to improving access to healthy food and associated health benefits, and it could mitigate the negative environmental impact associated with wasted food.
The research team will identify inefficiencies, barriers and opportunities for growth in the produce recovery and redistribution system, and also quantify the impacts of current and future policies and interventions on greenhouse gas emissions, access to fresh produce, and subsequent health benefits in the region.
“At its core, this project is examining strategies to best incentivize a more sustainable food system that considers the health of both our neighbors and our environment,” explains Dr. Feingold. “I’m thrilled to lead such an interdisciplinary research team with deep roots in the community to help achieve this vision for our region.”
The project will also estimate how local, state, and national food system policies and interventions, such as tax incentives for farmers and date-labeling education, might influence produce recovery strategies, donations, quality and access.
In addition to being matched by the School of Public Health and the University at Albany Foundation, the FFAR grant is being matched by Bellwether Collaboratory, Capital Roots, The Food Pantries for the Capital District, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Radix Ecological Sustainability Center.
“Capital Roots is eager to work with Dr. Feingold and her team at the University of Albany’s School of Public Health,” said Ms. Amy Klein, Chief Executive Officer at Capital Roots. “Since 2004 Capital Roots has been recovering and redistributing top-quality produce to emergency feeding programs and over the years we’ve seen the demand for healthier foods grow. This research project will provide the data and systems analysis needed to streamline regional efforts, therefore maximizing limited resources for those in need.”
“On behalf of the 59,000 people who seek food assistance annually from our coalition of more than 60 local food pantries, The Food Pantries for the Capital District is proud to collaborate on this effort,” said Ms. Natasha Pernicka, Executive Director of the Food Pantries for the Capital District. “We look forward to learning how we can improve our system to increase access and food to those who are struggling with food insecurity, which is more than one in 10 people in our community.”
FFAR, a nonprofit organization established through bipartisan congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, builds unique partnerships to support innovative and actionable science addressing today’s food and agriculture challenges. In May FFAR announced five grants totaling $4.4 million for research designed to enhance community food systems.