By Aisha Tepede

Since 1951, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been awarding academic institutions across the U.S. the opportunity to develop research projects. More recently, the Foundation has taken a new approach to build upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact.

The NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program enables universities and nonacademic institutions to develop solutions to address societal challenges through convergence research and innovation within a collaborative and multidisciplinary effort. This takes the form of themed “tracks,” focused on particular challenges, which are defined through a community-input process. A recent track on Food and Nutrition Security led to several awards for projects involving data use in sustainable agriculture, specifically around food supply chains to build resilience to climate change and natural hazards, using digital tools for agriculture and food, and seeing how food security, equity, health, and environmental justice innovations positively impact local communities.

With the lack of consistent access to enough food for individuals living in a household growing each year, several universities have chosen to create innovative and tangible solutions to minimize the burden it holds on many members of society. Throughout the USA, socially disadvantaged neighborhoods struggle with finding sustainable solutions for food and nutrition security. Some reasons include that lack of access to food varies greatly between communities and that there are climate issues such as communities that are at risk for hurricanes and other natural disasters. Universities such as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and University of Maryland, Baltimore County are creating solutions to reduce disaster-induced food and nutrition insecurity and improve health outcomes among underserved and minority communities.

The push for decreasing food insecurity has opened an arena for new and innovative digitals to be created. Institutes such as George Mason University and the University of Houston are focusing on and creating progressive data-driven systems that assist in crop management to increase US agricultural production as well as health issues that plague disadvantaged communities by building locally oriented food-charity ecosystems that incorporate culturally aware food distribution to community members. Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation also seeks to increase vegetable production capacity by developing climate-smart technology sustainable for precision agricultural practices that allow for effective and adaptive decision-making.

Along with food insecurity plaguing many communities, issues surrounding environmental justice and climate change have risen over time. Schools such as the University of California–Santa Barbara and Pratt Institute have projects that predict the ability to collaborate with stakeholders along the food system to develop actionable models tailored to their needs and decision-point and development projects that benefit agriculture and soil health on land. These projects aim to understand and anticipate the vulnerability of the global food system to predictable climate shocks.

To see a more in-depth description of each research project being held at various universities across the USA, see the table below.

Although the awardees each have different approaches and scopes of community improvement, there is a shared interest in synergizing work through facilitated collaboration to cultivate improved situations of development for underrepresented and underserved rural populations. The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub (MDBH) provides a venue for outreach and engagement that increases the potential for benefitting society and the themes seen with the institution’s awards. Collaborations with MDBH foster the use of data in sustainable agriculture, including around food supply chains to build resilience to climate change and natural hazards. One example is the “Enabling a Smart and Equitable Agriculture Ecosystem” working group that the MBDH co-leads. These and other activities address impacts on local communities, including food security, equity, health, and environmental justice.

Get Involved

Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub if you’re aware of other agriculture- or food-related people or projects we should profile here, or to participate in any of our community-led Priority Areas. The MBDH has a variety of ways to get involved with our community and activities.

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University, Iowa State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the national NSF Big Data Hubs community.

NSF Convergence Accelerator Track J Awards for Food and Nutrition Security

Aqua Sacs for Sustainable Agriculture in a Changing Climate (Pratt Institute)This project aims to understand and develop the industrialization steps required to produce Aqua Sac at a commercial scale.
Artificial-Intelligence-Based Decision Support for Equitable Food and Nutrition Security in the Houston Area (University of Houston)This project brings together civic collaborators with university researchers to develop and build a locally oriented food-charity ecosystem based on data-driven smart technologies in the Greater Houston region.
Building a digital twin for national-scale field-level crop monitoring, prediction, and decision support (George Mason University)This project aims to ensure food and nutrition security by enhancing crop productivity and reducing environmental footprint in the USA through wide adoption of the data-driven approach enabled by CSDT, which is a CropSmart Digital Twin that accurately represents the current conditions and predicts future-crop cropping systems.
Convergence Towards a Disaster Resilient Food System (University of Maryland Baltimore County)This project aims to create a Food Index for Resilience, Security, & Tangible Solutions (FIRST) that measures food system functioning. The FIRST will provide a tool for communities preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters and environmental change.
Data-driven Agriculture to Bridge Small Farms to Regional Food Supply Chains (University of Arkansas)This project advances the health and prosperity of the United States’ population, as well as environmental stewardship, through its focus on food and nutrition security.
Food EducatioN for Nutritional security and Empowerment in Local communities (FENNEL) (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)The project involves a robust set of activities to engage local communities in addressing nutritional insecurity through an educational and outreach-tailored approach to address community needs.
Food, Land, Water Environmental Open-Source Risk Intelligence Synthesis Model (FLOWER-ISM) ( project aims to involve technological advances and assistance to areas of focus surrounding identifying risks for conflict, water shortage, and food availability to ensure access to food is met for all citizens.
MidAtlantic Food Resiliency Network: Securing the Future of Food through a Multi-Mindset Approach (University of Maryland, College Park)This project focuses on the use of surveys, focus groups, a digital tool kit, and technology to address the complex and interconnected challenges of nutritional and food security.
Network Of User-engaged Researchers building Interdisciplinary Scientific infrastructures for Healthy food (NOURISH) (University of California–San Francisco)This project aims to solve the problem of food swamps by equipping responsible business entrepreneurs situated within these communities with data and information for developing and marketing healthy, sustainable foods.
Precision Agriculture for a Resilient Vegetable Supply Amidst Climate Change (Precision Ag4Veggie) (Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation)This project aims to increase vegetable production capacity throughout the USA by developing climate-smart, technologically and economically efficient, and environmentally sustainable precision-agricultural practices that enable more effective and adaptive decision-making.
Predicting the effect of climate extremes on the food system to improve resilience of global and local food security (University of California–Santa Barbara)This project aims to help identify drivers of hunger that are relevant in different settings within developing and developed countries in hopes of facilitating the development of protocols for decision-maker coproduction of models.
Rapid detection technologies and decision-support systems to mitigate food supply chain threats (University of Missouri–Columbia)This project aims to provide research and training opportunities for students to learn about the convergence-science approaches at the intersection of food science, public health, animal sciences, data science, and sensing technology as well as integrating multiple innovative features of an impedance-based biosensor.