University Launches Center for Nutrition and Food Security

In the United States, one in six Americans lack access to adequate amounts of healthy foods. The problem is even greater in Florida, and Duval County has one of the highest rates of food insecurity for the state at 20% of all adults. In an effort to address the issue and find solutions, the University of North Florida (UNF) has launched the Center for Nutrition and Food Security, which will be housed in the Brooks College of Health.

Under the direction of Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD, a UNF assistant professor in the Nutrition and Dietetics Flagship Program, the Center's mission is to bring individuals and organizations together in a coordinated, sustained effort that finds solutions, eliminating barriers in order to improve food access and nutritional health in the local and global community.

Earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton visited the campus to see firsthand what the University is doing in leading nutrition and food access efforts across Northeast Florida and to hear about the new Center and its initiatives.

"It was an honor to host former President Bill Clinton and discuss with him how UNF is working collectively to improve food access and nutritional health in our community," Wright says. "A lack of access to healthy foods can lead to many health issues, including diabetes and obesity. The UNF Center for Nutrition and Food Security has the tools and talent to create solutions to hunger in our community."

Clinton recognized the important work the Center will be doing to address nutrition and food security. "It's very encouraging to see what's happening here. Think what a difference it would make if every university in the country did this," he said.

The Center—the only one of its kind in Florida—will serve as a gateway to the University for nonprofit agencies, government programs, professional organizations, and industry personnel by exploring solutions to food insecurity and malnutrition. Major focus areas include food insecurity programming and evaluation, HIV nutrition, global malnutrition, food recovery, and nutritional biomarkers.

Some of the Center's initiatives include a campus kitchen food recovery, community-based Hunger Network, HIV nutrition and food program, biomarker analysis, and global nutrition initiatives. The Center is committed to providing learning opportunities through these initiatives for students at all levels—undergraduate, master's and doctoral.

One of the activities under the Center is the Food Fighters, a student-powered hunger-relief organization was established at UNF in January. Excess food from the Osprey Café on campus is recovered and repackaged into healthful meals. More than 1,400 meals have been provided to food-insecure clients at the Northeast Florida AIDS Network and the Sulzbacher Center.

While on campus, Clinton got to see firsthand the work done by the Food Fighters. "No country can waste 40% of its food. You're on the edge of solving a global problem," he told UNF students in the Food Fighter club. "You should be very proud of this and this school."

Another activity under the Center would be a community-based Hunger Network, a university-community partnership collectively working together to find solutions to hunger in Jacksonville. The Network will act as a resource for data and research coordination, a neutral convener for solving complex barriers and a facilitator for collective solutions to inequities in hunger, fresh food access, and opportunities for good nutrition.

The Hunger Network was developed out of community feedback from the 2016 Food Summit, cohosted by the Clinton Foundation, UNF, the Florida State College at Jacksonville, and the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville.

"I want to recognize the leadership of Dr. Wright and the University of North Florida, along with the many community partners who helped make this Center a reality," says Alex Chan, MPA, CEO of the Clinton Foundation's Health Matters Initiative. "The Hunger Network is designed to be a sustainable platform to bring people together to find solutions to hunger in Jacksonville. The Clinton Foundation is proud to support this effort, and it's a great example of the type of project that our community health transformation model works to support in the Jacksonville community."

Other Center activities will include the following:

HIV nutrition and food program: This initiative has begun with a nutritional needs assessment of the clients at Northeast Florida AIDS Network. A nutritional screening has been added to the EMR, and case managers will screen all clients. Those clients screened as a nutritional risk will be assessed by an RD. Focus groups have also been conducted with clients to determine their needs for nutrition education and needs in the food pantry.

Biomarker analysis: The initial activity within this initiative is a study on the effect of fermented vegetables on biomarkers of inflammation. The goal is to expand the biomarkers analyzed to complement research projects and offer fee services to conduct analysis for food companies.

Global nutrition initiatives: In the first year, the Center will be completing an adaptive feeding intervention and monitoring program for infants with congenital Zika syndrome in Brazil.

— Source: University of North Florida