Planning for a Food Policy Center at Duke University

Planning for a Food Policy Center at Duke University

At Duke University, the Sanford School of Public Policy has just completed two years of fact-finding and planning for a World Food Policy Center focused on new opportunities for learning and collaboration. Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School and a nationally recognized food policy expert, explains more in the following interview.

Why is this work important?

If you look at risk factors for causes of death around the world, food comes into play in eight of the top ten.

There is also the health of the planet to consider, especially the impact of agriculture on the environment and, in turn, the impact of the environment on agriculture. With the world population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, it will place enormous strains on producing sufficient food.

What areas of food policy might the Center address?

We would address four broad categories of food issues: hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity; obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes; agriculture and the environment, which includes biodiversity, GMOs, climate change, water, and other issues; and food safety and defense. We use the word “defense” because of concerns about bio-terrorism occurring through the food supply.

If you look around the world, very few places attempt to bridge these areas, which is why we believe the center is unique.

Why is that critical?

Without connections, food policy can get made in uncoordinated ways. You might have a win in one area, but negative consequences in others. Preventing this requires bridging, particularly by convening people who work across those areas.

The Duke Endowment and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation awarded funding to help determine the feasibility for a center. What did the planning period tell you?

It confirmed our intuition that there was very little being done that bridges all four areas of food policy. When we brought together world food policy leaders in April 2016, many had not met each other. In September, at a regional meeting of food leaders in the Carolinas, we found the same. This suggests there is a whole new type of conversation to be held around these issues.

What surprised you?

The sheer number of people working on food issues, even just locally. We were very gratified to find that.

Who attended the April meeting?

We had experts from organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Health Organization, the White House, the World Bank and the Bipartisan Policy Center. We also had leaders from the food industry: the CEO of PepsiCo, the head of food safety for Cargill, and the former CEO of Kraft.

We wanted to find out how a center like this could be helpful to various constituencies. It was a roll-up-your-sleeves, let’s-get-to-work kind of meeting.

For the regional meeting, we had food policy leaders from North and South Carolina: academics, researchers, people from the state departments of health and agriculture, funders, food industry experts and local nonprofits.

What are the next steps?

Increase staff so that we can do more convening, create an evidence base for policy decisions, and launch some needed programs.

What programs are you working on?

One is to create a global network of people interested in food policy – not just policy, industry and research leaders, but people who are working at the local level on food-related issues. We would like to connect them using the latest advances in technology.

Let's say, for example, that I am one of the many thousands of people in this worldwide network and I want to seek out others working on the issue of food waste. I could go into the system and post a question, and then people who work on that topic could share ideas and make new contacts. It would be a world food policy idea bank, where ideas could grow over time.

We are also looking at working with the city and county of Durham to create a model food system. Can you take one place, harness what exists now, introduce new ideas and practices, and try to get everything right?

Why would Duke University be a good home for the Center?

There is a remarkable interest across the campus – in the schools of medicine, environment, law, business, divinity, the global health institute – that provides a rich environment of different points of view.

Nearby, there is a world-class School of Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill and, at N.C. State University, there is a highly regarded School of Agriculture. And there are key players, such as RTI International in the Research Triangle Park.

There may not be any other place in the country with this concentration of relevant expertise in food policy issues. If we are effective at connecting these parties, the effect could be magical.

Learn more about the Sanford School of Public Policy.

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Susan L. McConnell
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