JWU and URI Awarded $270,000 USDA Grant to Research Food Systems

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Higher Education Challenge (HEC) grant program recently awarded Johnson & Wales University (JWU) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) more than $270,000 in funding to support food systems research initiatives. The grant will create a Food Systems Faculty Research Fellowship program to strengthen multidisciplinary research experiences for faculty and undergraduate students at both institutions.

As co-leads of the project, Jason Evans, Ph.D., dean of JWU’s College of Food Innovation & Technology (CFIT), and Becky Sartini, associate dean of academic programs in URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, are looking to accomplish a number of ambitious goals during the program’s 3-year lifespan, including:

  • Awarding at least 8 faculty research fellowships, for projects ranging from one-two years
  • Providing experiential, problem-based learning research experiences for 40 undergraduate students through diverse student research teams comprising at least 30% underrepresented minorities
  • Training at least 8 faculty on implementing and coordinating multidisciplinary research teams

In addition, the research teams will develop food systems curriculum modules to help spur innovation and scholarship within higher education, industry and at the community level.

“We look forward to working together to help solve problems and move our region toward a food system that is more locally based, more sustainable, equitable, and more resilient.”

Creating cross-disciplinary opportunities for students at both institutions to directly engage in in-depth research is a major priority for both team leads. Notes Evans, “Research in general engenders transferable skill development for students but these projects in particular will help students develop a fuller picture of the challenges — and opportunities — in the regional food system.”

Leveraging Institutional Strengths to Address Food System Issues

JWU and URI occupy different but complementary and equally important niches on the food systems education continuum.

As a global leader in culinary education, JWU’s historical focus has been on food consumers, specializing in the preparation, delivery, and presentation of food products.

As a land-grant university, URI’s historical focus has been on food science and production, preparing students for the sustainable development, production, harvesting, management, and utilization of resources.

This unique partnership will leverage their respective institutional strengths to address crucial issues affecting our food systems.

Two collaborative proposals have already been chosen:

URI Professor Rebecca Brown (left) and postdoctoral researcher Rahmatallah Gheshm pose in front of their experimental crop of saffron on the URI campus. URI Photo: Todd McLeishSaffron Production in Rhode Island

JWU Providence Assistant Professor Zhenlei Xiao and Professor Rebecca Brown of URI’s College of the Environment & Life Sciences will be collaborating on developing a production toolkit for the process of growing, harvesting, and processing saffron in Rhode Island. This project builds upon previous research done by Professor Brown and her colleague, postdoctoral researcher Rahmatallah Gheshm, that discovered that growing conditions in Rhode Island are ideal for high-yield growth of the crocus sativus flower, the source of saffron. (Gheshm passed away in late May, but Brown plans to move forward with the new project.) “Our second-year harvest had twice the yield as saffron grown in Iran, and we predict that this year’s harvest may be triple of Iran. With the good soil and water and weather here, we’re getting a bigger yield,” notes Brown. 

The process of processing saffron for food sales is more complicated. This project will create a faculty-led JWU-URI student research team to learn about and document the steps necessary to ensure a smooth process of getting saffron to market, from regulatory guidance and license requirements to food safety plans, processing documentation and other supporting materials.

Food Safety Plan (FSP) Development for Emerging Food Businesses

While small- to medium-scale food manufacturing businesses are not required to have a written Food Safety Plan (FSP), buyers may require one. And in general, it is considered good practice for food businesses to develop and implement a written FSP that effectively manages food safety hazards.

That said, many smaller operations struggle when developing these plans and ensuring overall compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Preventive Controls for Human Food (PCHF). They often lack dedicated resources to manage food safety and don’t have the budget to hire external technical assistance.

Using a one-on-one approach, this project seeks to pair trained students with small- to medium-scale food businesses to help them develop their FSP.

Project leads JWU Providence Associate Professor Ruben Morawicki and URI Associate Research Professor Nicole Richard will train the student research fellows in food quality and safety, food safety systems and management practices, and regulatory requirements. Once students pass the 20-hour standardized Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA) Preventive Controls for Human Food training, they will be certified as Preventive Control Qualified Individual (PCQI) and will be able to assist businesses with developing their FSPs.

To do so, the students will conduct a food safety review to assess the food company’s operational conformance; they will then use this information to develop an FSP for the company.

This proposed project intends to build the capacity of the JWU-URI partnership to create a stronger connection with early stage small and medium‐scale food processors and provide problem‐based learning opportunities for JWU and URI students.

A third accepted proposal from URI will delve into the vital activities undertaken by alternative urban food provisioning networks (AUFPNs):

Mapping Diverse Services from Alternative Urban Food Provisioning Networks and Identifying Opportunities for Policy Support

URI faculty members Patrick Baur, Julie Keller, John Taylor and Melva Treviño’s proposal will assess the viability of AUFPNs, particularly here in the Ocean State.

As defined by this proposal, AUFPNs “encompass diverse and vibrant agents, places, and activities ranging from backyard and market gardeners to youth educators, on-shore fishing spots to pop-up markets, and communal harvests to mutual food aid delivery. [They] emerge to fulfill critical services — such as food security, livelihoods, cultural expression, sense of place, and human and ecosystem health. Yet these networks also face persistent precarity because they are rarely recognized, let alone represented and supported, by policy actors.”

This research proposal seeks to evaluate their impact on key food systems outcomes (including food security, resilience, cultural expression, biodiversity, and urban environmental quality), and identifying policy opportunities to better support this crucial network.

Multipurpose Spaces Ideal for JWU-URI Collaboration

Multiple facilities at JWU and URI will be available to faculty fellows and students engaged in projects administered through the grant.

At JWU, these include (but are not limited to) JWU Providence’s LEED-certified Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence (CCCE), the Harborside Academic Center (HAC), and the Food Innovation & Design Lab (FIDL), the newest of JWU’s culinary science/innovation spaces.

URI spaces available to faculty fellows include the LEED-certified Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences, the RI Food Center, the Blount Aquaculture Research Center, and the Gardner Agronomy Center, among other food-related teaching and research facilities.

As our food systems grow ever more complex and interconnected, there is an increasing need for food system research teams to be diverse and multidisciplinary. URI’s Sartini is excited about the possibilities offered by this groundbreaking collaboration: “We look forward to working together to help solve problems and move our region toward a food system that is more locally based, more sustainable, equitable, and more resilient.”


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