Promoting Better Health through Efficient Food Systems

Through the Tipping Points grant program, FFAR aims to better understand the complexities of the food system, how components of the food system influence one another, which interventions work best in specific environments, and how they can be changed or combined to optimize their impact on the food system and overall community health and the economy.  Dynamic and systems models provide the capacity to evaluate complex scenarios and outcomes that arise from interactions between individual components of a system, potentially uncovering new functions of these components.

FFAR issued a public call for multidisciplinary research teams prepared to use mathematical and computational systems to model dynamic relationships between individual interventions (one another) in the context of local food systems and the environment. A key requirement for applicants was demonstrated plan for coordinating with local groups that facilitate interventions, public health researchers, mathematicians and computer scientists.The following research projects, announced in May 2018, were successful applicants to a competitive process.
Read more about how this program aims to address the complexities of our food system at the community level below.

Responding to COVID-19

The Tipping Points Grantees work with community organizations to understand local food systems and improve health and economic outcomes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans relied on fragile emergency food systems. We saw an opportunity to incorporate data about how food supply chains in cities are responding to COVID-19. We awarded a total of $482,642 to the five grantees to examine the trade-offs associated with policy and programming interventions in response to COVID-19. 

Learn more about these grants


About the Research

Joy Casnovsky, MPAff, Sustainable Food Center

Evaluating Food Access Strategies in Austin to Improve Healthy Food Consumption and Food Security
Dr. Casnovsky and her team of collaborators are examining the impact of an existing community driven effort in Austin, Texas to increase residents’ access to healthy foods. Implementation of the city-funded Fresh for Less farm stands, mobile markets, and healthy corner stores in the Eastern Crescent of Austin, a majority-minority, low-income area of the city, aim to improve the health of the community by increasing the availability of healthy foods and engaging residents in these efforts. With a $996,560 FFAR grant, Casnovsky and Dr. Alexandra van den Berg, Ph.D,and her research team at UTHealth School of Public Health will be using a quasi-experimental study design to follow a longitudinal cohort of residents, and examine the impact of these new food access points on fruit and vegetable purchasing and consumption, food security, and obesity. The research team will develop an agent-based model to simulate varying expansion scenarios and their expected impact on health behaviors. The results from this study will provide critical information for the optimal implementation and scale-up of future food accessibility strategies.

The FFAR grant is being matched by Austin Public Health.

Beth Feingold, Ph.D., University at Albany

Environmental and Nutritional Benefits of Food Recovery and Redistribution: A Pilot Assessment in New York’s Capital Region
Dr. Feingold and her research team will use a $433,152 FFAR grant to evaluate the components of fresh produce recovery and redistribution in New York’s Capital Region. Feingold, along with her co-PI, Xiaobo Xue, Ph.D., and their team, is compiling and collecting data in partnership with local stakeholders to create a dynamic model of this arm of the food system. This research will help identify local inefficiencies, opportunities for growth, and system resilience.  The main goal of the project is to 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, and therefore jointly impact environmental emissions and nutrition-related health benefits for populations experiencing food insecurity. Their systems model could have application in other geographic areas.
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, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Radix Ecological Sustainability Center, University at Albany Foundation, and the University at Albany School of Public Health - State University of New York.

Darcy Freedman, Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Modeling the Future of Food in Your Neighborhood
Dr. Freedman is developing decision-making tools to maximize the equitable impact of food systems efforts in Cleveland, Ohio. With a FFAR grant of $936,418, research will begin by exploring the synergistic relationships of existing initiatives within the food system. Strategies to improve community nutrition, food security, and economic opportunity, such as the development of new businesses related to food and incentives for healthy foods, will be examined. Creating a system dynamic model with this research will provide a tool for community partners to strategically tailor, sequence, and integrate their initiatives in neighborhoods both within and outside of Cleveland.

The FFAR grant is being matched by Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Center for Health Affairs, City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Cleveland State University, Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, The Ohio State University (OSU) Extension Cuyahoga County, OSU John Glenn School, OSU SNAP-Ed, Saint Luke’s Foundation, The Food Trust, Unify Project and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

Steven Gray, Ph.D., Michigan State University

Identifying Leverage Points for Transformation in Urban Food Systems
Dr. Gray and his research team are working to identify leverage points for positive transformation in the Flint, Michigan food system. As a result of the city’s economic decline, aid from all levels of government and organizations are working to decrease the rise in food insecurity and malnutrition. With a $1 million FFAR grant, Gray is collaborating with multiple stakeholders to determine how these interventions from all levels can work together. A series of workshops will be held to identify the factors that inhibit positive change as well as to develop a plan to utilize current resources more efficiently. This research will help develop a model food system to support collective action that promotes healthy and affordable food access for the Flint community.

The FFAR grant is being matched by C.S. Mott Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Flint Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Fitness Foundation and Michigan State University.

Becca Jablonski, Ph.D., Colorado State University

Integrating Community and Modeling Efforts to Evaluate Impacts and Tradeoffs of Food System Interventions

Dr. Jablonski and team are evaluating the potential for Denver based food system policies and initiatives to support food system efforts throughout the state. Research will include various sources of data to characterize Denver, Colorado’s producer, processor, retailer and consumer behavior to build a computational model of the current food system and develop hypothetical intervention scenarios. The $1 million FFAR grant will help connect food security and access efforts with the agri-business, natural resources and economic development community through a tool that can help communities understand tradeoffs associated with different food policy, programming, and initiatives.

The FFAR grant is being matched by Colorado Food Policy Network, Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Association, Colorado Potato Advisory Committee, Colorado Wheat Research Foundation, Colorado State University, City/County of Denver, LiveWell Colorado, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver Urban Gardens, Field to Market, IP3 and Kaiser Permanente for a total $2 million project.

Issue Background

Health is inextricably linked to food and the environment, where environment consists of all aspects of a community including housing, education, the economy, and many other factors. Throughout the US many communities exist where disproportionate segments of the population are affected by chronic diseases, food insecurity, and poverty, largely caused by inequities within different components of a community or region. Governments from the local to federal level, philanthropic foundations, and local community partners have targeted specific components within communities or regions to elicit change. While these efforts have had significant impact, they are often disconnected from one another, missing opportunities that take into account the interdependent relationships between components of these complex and dynamic communities and regions.

The food system is an integral part of a community/region and is often targeted for change due to its direct connection to health and the economy. The food system itself consists of multiple interdependent parts that influence one another including access, quality, and affordability of food, that ultimately lead to changes in behavior. Broadly, these components can drastically impact and be impacted by vital parts of the community including the economy, health, and education. Across the US there are many communities with interventions that attempt to drive change to more equitable systems that promote local economies and improve health disparities at a population level. In many communities, even communities with a plethora of interventions that have similar overarching goals, these interventions operate independently of one another. And while each of these interventions do drive change, their potential to sustainably transform the system can be lost when interventions are designed and evaluated outside the context of an interconnected system. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) aims to sustainably transform food systems to better promote health, equity, and economic opportunities by increasing our fundamental understanding of these systems.

FFAR aims to build on the investments already made that target food systems within communities and regions. This RFA attempts to leverage the knowledge gained through these investments to increase our understanding of the complexities within a community or regional food system. The insights gained from these interventions and understanding their interdependence on each other can lead to sustainable solutions that promote health and increase economic opportunities. Through this program, FFAR aims to better understand the complexities of the food system, how components of the food system influence one another, which interventions work best in specific environments, and how they can be changed or combined to optimize their impact on the food system and overall community health and the economy. Dynamic and systems models provide the capacity to evaluate complex scenarios and outcomes that arise from interactions between individual components of a system, potentially uncovering new functions of these components.

Definitions of Terms

Food System: A system that integrates production, processing, and consumption of food within a region.