Special Report Food Security
What are we doing to fight back?
Ohio State’s broad-based effort to improve food security
If he weren’t a researcher or teacher or scientist, Casey Hoy would be an Irish fiddle player. “Albeit a starving one,” he concedes. But as Ohio State’s Kellogg Endowed Chair in Agroecosystems Management, his talent is listening to the institution’s wide-ranging voices and unifying them to address challenges across the food system.
Hoy is based at Wooster’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Within this research arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, he and his colleagues study the balance between people and land — so that farms are prosperous, communities are sustainable and environments are healthy.
How would you characterize the overall challenge of food insecurity?
It’s a problem that will define the 21st century. We don’t have a resilient food system that can reliably ensure the health and well-being of a growing population, especially with environmental change and other constraints. It’s never been attained — all people having access to nutritious, sufficient food — and it makes equity and stability [among people] vulnerable concepts.
What does the problem look like closer to home?
Right now, one in nine people is chronically malnourished worldwide. In Ohio, among the worst states in the nation, 16 percent of households report low food security; they’re unsure of where their next meal will come from. About half of that percentage is considered very low in terms of food security, so those people are regularly going hungry. Households with children have higher rates. So kids, especially, are struggling. There are plenty of issues with diet, obesity and diabetes, and they’re at epidemic proportions. Those aren’t symptoms of a healthy food system.
Why is Ohio State able to take a leadership role in addressing the symptoms and roots of food insecurity?
Ohio State is positioned to be a leader because of its wide range of disciplinary strengths that can be focused on food and its related topics. We have a range of classes, minors and majors, and specializations that deal with food. And we have experts in critical areas like agroecology, climate, food systems from production to consumption, culture, justice, policy, nutrition and health. It’s very rare to have the colleges of agriculture and medicine together, as they are here. Ohio State also has a focus on partnerships that stems from the president’s 2020 Vision to collectively address the problems that impact us all.
You also serve as faculty director of Ohio State’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), which builds on those strengths.
Right. And we’ve just hired Bryan Snyder as executive director. He is a national leader in sustainable agriculture and food systems and will focus on building capacity through partnerships to put the transformation in motion.
InFACT is an unprecedented investment of nearly $125 million over the next decade. It starts with hiring 30 faculty across the entire university who link our current areas of strength together. The connections are where Ohio State has real power. We have over 20 interdisciplinary centers that address issues related to food — there’s a lot of breadth — but these new experts provide the connections that will help us gain even greater capacity to make a real impact.
The hiring is taking place in climate change and food production; health and nutrition; business ecosystems; and food policy. We’re focusing on how and where we grow, process, distribute, prepare and share food. A common theme throughout that entire system is our relationship to the land — the “culture” in “agriculture.” So we’re looking at the economy, housing, class, race and gender, too.
And we’re doing it locally to globally. We’ll start with our own food systems on campus and in the surrounding communities, and we’ll build out from there.
How are we doing this?
For example, we have Waterman Farm, a 261-acre farm in the middle of a city. There’s nothing like that anywhere else on the surface of the planet that’s part of a land-grant university. It’s a great place for research and education on how you farm in urban environments. We can operate Waterman as an integrated farm, looking at everything from humanities to engineering to medicine. We’re recognizing the resource that we have in this farm, and we’re taking a systems approach to how we can use it.
Another of our goals is to help direct the purchasing power of our university to support healthy agricultural ecosystems. That means we’re encouraging a fair, sustainable and green food economy, from local to international scales.
Ultimately, what is Ohio State’s objective in addressing barriers to food security?
To not just reimagine the food system, but to create new models of a transformed system, with the goal being food security for all.
We should have a fair amount of control over the system that Ohio State owns, and that system doesn’t stop at the borders of campus. You have to think about Columbus, then Ohio, then beyond. For example, what works in a re-envisioned food system in Columbus that could translate to Mumbai? The goal would be principles we can all share, because we’re all in this together. So that extends from campus to our gateway offices [in China, India and Brazil] and to all of our connections around the world.
And if the university were to realize that goal, what would the new landscape look like?
The quality of food would be different. The access, the logistics, the way it’s shared — all would be more equitable. There would be a recognition that food is an inalienable right, instead of a privilege or something you earn.
At the end of the day, food would be nutritious, fair, affordable, accessible and produced in a way that preserves natural capital.
Help Ohio State grow healthier communities
Support the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation team’s collaborative mission to examine and address food security from cultural, political, economic and environmental fronts.
Buckeye Food Alliance pantry
Assist a student-led effort to help current Buckeyes in need.
Food Innovation Center
Help experts from across 15 colleges tackle food and nutrition issues through food mapping, public health policy, obesity prevention and other key initiatives.