MSU College of Education joins $10M grant to create, educate about U.S. equitable food systems

April 3, 2023

A transdisciplinary team of researchers, educators and extension experts led by Michigan State University has received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create more sustainable and equitable food systems in the Midwest and beyond. The five-year integrated project is funded through the Sustainable Agricultural Systems program of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Food systems at the local and regional levels are susceptible to a number of disruptions, which researchers refer to as “shocks.” The COVID-19 pandemic, climate events and foodborne pathogens are examples of shocks that can cause disturbances in supply chains, ultimately leading to food and nutrition security challenges.

Students in MSU labs led by Robin Buell and Eva Farré harvest potatoes as part of another cross-university collaboration: What makes potatoes, and science teachers, tick? Credit: Buell Lab (2020)

A single supply chain interruption can be difficult to overcome, but shocks often occur simultaneously and without warning. While previous research on this topic has focused on individual supply chain interferences in isolation, the overarching goal of the new effort is to build food systems that are able to withstand several shocks happening concurrently.

The project is led by Brent Ross, associate professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, and associate chairperson for undergraduate programs in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“The frequency of these complex events is only expected to increase over the coming years,” Ross said. “It’s essential to gain a greater understanding of these relationships to improve decision making that allows for disruptions to have as minimal of an impact on food and nutrition security as possible, especially for vulnerable U.S. populations.”

The team has outlined a series of objectives that aim to address the interrelated ways in which shocks affect food systems. Researchers will evaluate characteristics of supply chains that may put them at risk, historical and projected shocks, and mitigation strategies.

Using artificial intelligence and decision-support tools, researchers will model multiple shocks to simulate an assortment of scenarios, factoring in vulnerable populations.

“Our project will initially focus on the Midwest to develop cutting-edge approaches, ” said Jianguo (Jack) Liu,  co-principal investigator of the project, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), and University Distinguished Professor in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “We will also train a new generation of transdisciplinary scholars and practitioners so that the innovative approaches can be applied to other regions of the U.S., and even other countries.”

The outcomes will be the basis for education of K-12 to graduate students, as well as outreach and extension resources that target local and regional policymakers, businesses, the agricultural community, and educators. Information will be shared through published papers, in-person and virtual presentations, policy briefs, stakeholder meetings, social media, newsletters and online extension materials.

The College of Education’s Office of K-12 Outreach is leading a substantial portion of the educational portion of the grant.

Scholars from the office are working with Mavin Global to help describe and visualize what these so-called “shocks” are to young learners, and how efforts to prevent or insulate against these shocks may impact the environment, sometimes in unintended ways.

“The content will concern how food supply and chains can be affected by shocks, such as due to the COVID-19 pandemic, disease or labor shortages,” said Kenneth Frank, the MSU Foundation Professor of Sociometrics and one of the project co-PIs. “Students will not only learn about the implications of shocks based on physical science, but also the pragmatic implications for their community. Such authentic problems have long been proven to generate some of the best opportunities for learning.”

Kenneth Frank

The Mavin Global technology has already been piloted in several schools and MSU scholars have already seen, first hand, how students and educators engage with and learn from the platform. This grant, they say, will allow even more learning to take place to understand a big, real-world problem.

“The learning doesn’t stop at the hard science of supply chains and biology, but also allows students to explore what food challenges and opportunities exist for them locally,” said Bryan Beverly, director of the Office of K-12 Outreach and another co-PI for the grant. Nicole Ellefson, an outreach specialist with the office, is also part of the grant. “We look forward to supporting more educators and students as they connect with this new technology and are eager to discover what are the implications for teaching and learning in our state.”

Bryan Beverly


“Sustainable, resilient and equitable food systems are needed in every community, so we appreciate that the USDA has recognized the importance of this project,” Ross said. “Given the great demand for information on this topic, we will work diligently to disseminate our results across a wide range of platforms. That is an essential component of this work, getting resources into the hands of people who can implement it.”

Joining Ross, Liu, Frank, Beverly and Elleson are Spartans representing four colleges, and several departments and programs. They are:

  • Sue Nichols, assistant director and research communications strategist in CSIS.
  • Andrés Viña, assistant professor in CSIS.
  • Judith Whipple, the interim dean in the Broad College of Business, and the Donald J. Bowersox and Robert W. Thull Professor in Logistics and Supply Chain Management.
  • Julie Winkler, professor in the College of Social Science.
  • Felicia Wu, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Food Safety, Toxicology and Risk Assessment in AFRE and the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

“MSU is uniquely equipped to lead a large, interdisciplinary effort such as this because of our leadership in agricultural sciences, education, sociology, supply chain economics, sustainability and systems integration,” Ross said. “In addition, our partners bring valuable and complementary expertise that helps us capture a variety of perspectives, as well as increase the scale to locations outside of Michigan that may be susceptible to different shocks.”

Partner institutions and organizations are:

  • Indiana University
  • Purdue University
  • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • The Global Food and Ag Network
  • Mavin Global Company
  • The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals
  • The USDA Midwest Climate Hub

This story is a modified version of one written by Cameron Rudolph. It is altered with the original author’s written permission. View the original version of the story on the MSU AgBioResearch website, posted on February 9, 2023.