NSF-funded national research network to address the challenge of reducing wasted food

9/30/2021 10:43:37 AM

In the United States, 40 percent of all food produced is never eaten, resulting in lost resources, economic costs to businesses and households, decreased food security and negative climate impacts. As the U.S. moves toward an ambitious goal to significantly reduce food waste by 2030, a $15 million, five-year, multi-institution project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will engage communities in California, and the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.

Megan Konar
Megan Konar

Under the grant, research partners from 14 institutions – including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – have established the first national academic research network on wasted food. American University (AU) is leading the project; associate professor Megan Konar is the lead at U of I.

The network will deepen understanding of how the causes of wasted food are interconnected and how they intersect with other regional systems beyond food. Researchers will take a systems approach to improving data on wasted food, with the goal of designing and strengthening sustainable solutions to reducing food waste.

“My group will model the national food supply chain and develop novel metrics to understand trade-offs in our food system,” Konar said. “We will also create an interactive visualization system that can be used by other researchers and decision makers throughout the supply chain.”

In addition to U of I and AU, the network includes research partners from Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, Ohio State University and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Additionally, researchers from Maryland Institute College of Art, World Wildlife Fund, University of Albany, Louisiana State University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Illinois Institute of Technology, Duke University, and University of California-Davis are taking part. Sauleh Siddiqui, associate professor of environmental science in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences, is principal investigator on the NSF grant.

The project scope includes work in the following areas and will engage communities, frontline workers in food industries, and non-profit, government and private-sector stakeholders to create knowledge and drive solutions.

  • Smarter data and predictive modeling. In the pursuit of efficiency and sustainability, Siddiqui said, inequitable decisions can occur, such as diverting low-quality foods to low-income neighborhoods. New math models can integrate data and take multiple factors into account and show the way to food systems solutions that balance sustainability, resilience and equity outcomes. Food rescue is a policy action that will be evaluated to determine impacts for food waste, environmental quality, population health and equity outcomes.
  • STEM K-12 and post-secondary education. A general education course and open educational resource, Wasted Food 101, and the first undergraduate student science journal on food systems will be created; there will be a curriculum for elementary school students; and partnerships with minority and disability serving institutions to engage Black, deaf, and hard of hearing students in research experiences.
  • Strategies to minimize household-level food waste. As consumer behavior plays a role in wasted food, research will be conducted on wasted food prevention campaigns in cities. Mapping trends and other digital tools will be used to assess wasted food and design educational and social marketing campaigns aimed at preventing waste and addressing the social determinants of health in communities.
  • Study new technologies on wasted food and their integration with regional infrastructure. Technologies like composting and anaerobic digestion are leading options for wasted food management, but their adoption is limited.

Konar, who joined the faculty in 2013, is the William J. and Elaine F. Hall Faculty Fellow at CEE. She conducts policy-relevant research that focuses on the intersection of water, food and trade. Her research draws from multiple disciplines including hydrology, environmental science and economics.

“I am excited to join this wonderful team to coordinate and elevate our individual research efforts to have a real-world impact on the sustainability and resilience of our food systems,” Konar said.

The project, Multiscale Resilient, Equitable and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies for Sustainable Food Systems, or RECIPES, was awarded under NSF’s Sustainable Regional Systems Research Networks program. NSF research networks create knowledge and solutions that enhance sustainability, equity and resilience of regional systems in the United States.