Pine Bluff, AR — The University of Arkansas Pine Bluff (UAPB) was awarded a $750K grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop culturally appropriate food literacy programming for the Arkansas Delta Region. UAPB is one of 16 multidisciplinary teams selected for the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator’s Track J, focused on Food & Nutrition Security solutions based on their FENNEL (Food EducatioN for Nutritional security and Empowerment in Local communities) Phase 1 program plan.

According to NSF News, Track J builds upon the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator’s mission of accelerating convergence research to address large-scale societal and economic challenges, including developing technologies, tools, and approaches to combat challenges related to population health, climate change, and the nutritional needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

The UAPB award approach explained how UAPB resides in an agricultural community. Still, paradoxically, southeast Arkansas is also considered a food desert because of poverty and poor socioeconomic factors. Therefore, finding sustainable food and nutrition security solutions is very challenging because the reasons behind the lack of food access can vary significantly among Arkansas communities.

The award concluded that UAPB is well-positioned to document the local communities’ specific challenges and to identify government, non-profit and private sector stakeholders to converge and develop sustainable solutions. According to Dr. Zeeshan Habeeb, UAPB Assistant Professor, and FENNEL Principal Investigator, “To be sustainable, food and nutritional security solutions need to be culturally relevant. UAPB is ideally positioned to meet this challenge with faculty/staff who excel in their fields and come from diverse backgrounds. Our work with the community will focus on building trust and introducing data-driven solutions for societal impact, especially in underserved areas.”

UAPB will lead the FENNEL program. However, the grant award team reflects the initial convergence by including university, academic, community-profit, and non-profit members. The FENNEL team includes Zeeshan Habeeb (Assistant Professor, Dept of Chemistry and Physics/PI), Suzzette Goldmon (Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for Hospitality and Tourism Management, Department of Human Sciences /Co-PI), Sathish Ponniah(Associate Professor of Plant Science, Department of Agriculture/Co-PI), Vinay Raj (Assistant Professor, Department of Biology & Department of Math and Computer Science/Co-PI), Yasser Sanad (Associate Professor of Food Safety, Department of Agriculture /Co-PI), David Fernandez (Interim Dean Division of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education Extension Specialist IV 1890 Cooperative Extension Program/Senior Personnel), Henry English (Head of the Small Farm Program/Extension Specialist IV, SAFHS/Senior Personnel), Teki Hunt (Director of 4-H Youth Programs and SAFHS Recruitment, Department of Human Sciences /Senior Personnel) from UAPB. Academic partners include UAMS, Michael Thomsen (Professor Governor Sidney S. McMath Chair in Obesity Prevention, Director, Center for the Study of Obesity, Professor Department of Health Policy and Management/role), and Linda Williams (Research Program Manager/Program Manager).  Other partners include the local non-profit, Go Forward Pine Bluff and global industry leader  Aramark Corporation, which provides UAPB’s food services.

FENNEL will engage local communities in addressing nutritional insecurity through an educational and outreach-tailored approach. These education-based interventions will include demonstrations in urban farming followed by novel cooking methods, preserving our farm-raised fresh produce, and connecting with local restaurants willing to participate in recipe development, testing, and serving healthier menu options. According to Dr. Suzzette Goldmon, UAPB Hospitality and Tourism Management Professor and FENNEL Co-principal Investigator, “I am excited to be a part of such a diverse team of experts agreeing to bring practical and immediate solutions to food insecurity in Southeast Arkansas through “hands-on” education.” “My contribution as a Hospitality and Culinary educator will be to interact with the college campus and community by providing assessable, acceptable, and easily applicable resources that would immediately contribute to improving health.”

Sustainable food and nutrition security solutions have been elusive in under-served and marginalized communities because community-specific challenges and local consumer behaviors toward healthy food consumption need to be well documented. Dr. Sathish Ponniah, UAPB Associate Professor of Plant Science and FENNEL Co-principal Investigator, explains, “Most of us rely on convenience foods for our dietary needs, not realizing the quantity of salt and oil in food products. These food products require an increased quantity of salt and oil for long-term storage. In the FENNEL project, I will help our local community to grow fresh produce for their daily needs. As a result, people can prepare healthy food with the correct quantity of salt and oil to lead a healthy life.”

The Arkansas Delta region is also underserved by the research community, with very little published public-health research compared to similar populations on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Yasser Sanad, UAPB Professor of Food Safety, adds, “There are multiple unsafe food practices and improper food handling practices that commonly make people sick in local communities. We plan to include activities on improving food safety and reducing the incidence of foodborne infections. These activities inform local and state consumers’ habits for healthy eating while lowering the incidences of foodborne related diseases. In addition, we will disseminate our services and expertise to our local and regional producers to improve safe food production practices and educate the local community and students on basic food safety tips.”

To improve the food documentation and information desert, FENNEL will engage the local community to document food and nutritional security barriers through before and after surveys during their education-based interventions. The surveys are aimed at college students, local food businesses, and the public. Results will be compiled into case studies to disseminate this engagement model to agriculture Extension Offices in other states to scale a method for developing culturally appropriate solutions. FENNEL information will be designed for the general public and focused on improving health literacy and well-being amongst underserved and minority communities. In addition, socially disadvantaged farmers will benefit from improved health outcomes leading to better productivity.

In addition, FENNEL will present its results as case studies to other higher education institutions and stakeholders who can adopt this community-centered, data-driven approach to develop sustainable solutions for their communities.