UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After seven years of analyzing a number of consumption, distribution, production, and other aspects of the Northeast U.S. food system, researchers from Penn State and 10 other universities and organizations have made significant gains in understanding the extent to which the region can increase production of certain foods, and potentially better meet the food needs of low-income populations in the locations they studied.
Findings and outputs from the project, which concluded earlier this year, will be useful to food system planners, policy makers, researchers and advocates interested in advancing regional food systems.
"The Northeast is home to roughly 22 percent of the nation's population, but only about six percent of farmland, which raises questions about how food secure we are as a region," said Project Director Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural and regional economics in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. "We wanted to know whether a stronger regional food system, which operates at a large geographic scale, might improve food security while also reaping environmental and economic benefits."
To answer that question, Goetz joined forces with researchers and educators at 11 institutions and organizations in 2011 to take the first interdisciplinary, system-wide approach to studying a multi-state food system. The project, called Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast (EFSNE), was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and engaged more than 40 individuals and 45 students during its seven-year run.
Team members formed several sub-groups to study the region's agricultural production capacity, supply chains and distribution systems, and the experiences, preferences and shopping patterns of consumers at nine low-income rural and urban locations. The researchers selected eight foods — collectively referred to as the project market basket — to serve as the focal point of their research efforts.
"The market basket, which included fresh and processed foods, allowed us to examine the same foods through the lenses of multiple disciplines," said EFSNE Deputy Director Kate Clancy, an independent food systems consultant. "As a result, we're able to tell a rich story about this specific set of foods, their supply, and what opportunities exist to enhance their production and distribution in the region."