Food institute to sprout on GW’s city streets

Even the dean of GW’s largest college said the recent push for a food research institute is unusual for an urban university surrounded by grey office buildings instead of green fields.

But the University dished out $200,000 this year for research proposals relating to food and nutrition – such as food security and the study of the genetics behind obesity – as it builds momentum to create an urban food research institute over the next few years.

“It’s a more land grant, [agriculture] school kind of topic, but we’re coming at it in a different way,” Dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Peg Barratt said. “I think it’s a nice interdisciplinary piece, because there are people working on food-related issues in a lot of different pockets around the University.”

The research institute, which would bring together faculty and students across schools, would likely need millions of dollars in start-up funds, staffing and research space.

It would hinge on the six GW-funded projects from the “Food for Thought” program already in the works.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said he was surprised that his office received 18 proposals for food research, ultimately choosing six.

For instance, psychology and psychiatry researchers will use $39,000 to study how poor nutrition impact mental illnesses.

Another study, run by statistics and biochemistry researchers, looks at how alcohol addiction and obesity overlap. Another spearheaded by economics and international affairs faculty tackle agricultural development in Haiti and Nepal.

Chalupa said his office and faculty would evaluate the likelihood of an urban food research institute in May, after looking at “pilot data” from the initial projects. Afterward, a faculty committee could help forecast the institute’s future.

Provost Steven Lerman said the University would likely look for an outside researcher to coalesce support for the potential institute, though he said plans are still up in the air.

Urban food research has been a focus since University President Steven Knapp, whose wife Diane is a nutritionist, established a task force on the topic in 2010. It tackled smaller initiatives, like a partnership with the School Without Walls on high school nutrition.

Over the past five years, books, documentaries and activists have shined a light on the food industry, especially food production.

An urban food institute would align with the University’s near-final strategic plan, which calls for spending between $20 million and $30 million over the next decade on interdisciplinary research centers.

Some major research universities, like University of Florida, Stanford University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, run multi-million dollar research centers that study food and agriculture.

The University will also build buzz for food research next week, when it hosts a showcase for researchers, nutritionists and even celebrity chef José Andrés, who co-teaches a course on food this semester.

Jean Gutierrez, assistant professor of exercise science, said the interest in nutrition and food at GW has increased since she arrived in 2009.

“It’s oversaid, but our location does give us a unique position to work with different populations,” she said. “It gives us more access to people who have influence internationally, so I think that GW does have the potential to develop a niche in this area.”

Robert Maguire, a professor of practice in international affairs who has a $32,500 grant for the study on Haitian and Nepalese agricultural development programs, said a potential food institute would also have policy influence.

Maguire pointed to a strong interest in developmental food studies among his peers and students, adding that he hopes a research institute will continue to raise awareness of the topic.

“In developing nations, there’s been great migrations of poor people of the land, and one of the biggest challenges is how do you essentially feed growing urban populations of poor people,” he said. “This could be a very interesting and potential link with the urban food institute.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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