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Published February 28, 2013, 11:00 AM

SDSU leads national research project

Study aims to boost healthy food choices.

By: Dirk Lammers , Associated Press

BROOKINGS, S.D. — South Dakota State University will lead a nearly $4 million study aimed at giving needy families across the country healthier nutritional choices at their local food pantries, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

South Dakota State researchers and colleagues at Michigan State, Purdue, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio will work with local food policy councils in a dozen test communities with the hope that the program can be replicated elsewhere, said Suzanne Stluka, who will lead the five-year Voices for Food project.

Stluka, director of the Food and Families Program at South Dakota State, says families who get their food from emergency and supplemental nutrition programs are often limited in their choices.

“Poor nutrition today does not necessarily result in starvation, but it results in chronic diseases such as obesity or heart disease or cancer,” she says. “So we’re dealing with a whole another round of food access and food security. And financially challenged and underrepresented citizens are at the highest risk.”

The award is part of more than $75 million in USDA research grants given to 21 schools across the country that were announced by Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan on Feb. 27.

Merrigan, speaking at South Dakota State University’s student union, said consumers want nutritious and locally grown food, but many simply don’t have access to it.

They live in what are called “food deserts” — low-income communities in which a substantial number of residents are at least 10 miles form a large grocery or supermarket — so the convenience store or liquor store down the street might be their only option.

“They’re paying more money for less quality food,” Merrigan says.

The work involved

Stluka says Voices for Food will draw from varied expertise, incorporating nutrition, youth development, agriculture, community development, social marketing and evaluation.

Researchers will spend the first year identifying two test communities in each of the participating states — South Dakota, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio — and develop their research protocol. The following three years will be spent in the learning communities, developing food policy councils, teaching about nutrition and increasing the healthy choices, Stluka says.

“In year five, what we will do is we’ll really focus our efforts on making sure the work is sustained in those communities, because we want to create a model that can be implemented,” she says.

Merrigan said the USDA has come a long way in understanding the importance of healthy food access and locally grown regional food systems.

And it’s more than just nutrition, as regional food systems can make rural communities more vibrant and attracting young people back to working lands, she says.

“There’s not a challenge before American agriculture more daunting than repopulating our farms and ranches,” Merrigan says.

Department officials say the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s 2012 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Food Security program supports research that will keep American agriculture competitive while helping to end world hunger. The program’s aim is to increase the availability and accessibility of domestic and international food.

Other grant recipients include Purdue University, which is developing new strategies to defend against ear rot diseases in corn, the University of Tennessee, which is looking to identify ways to improve milk quality in the Southeast and enhance the sustainability of the Southeast dairy industry and the University of California in Berkeley, which will work with tribal groups in the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California to build sustainable regional food systems.