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June 7, 2019

Lauren Chenarides standing under branch with yellow billed Toucan

The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Lauren Chenarides, assistant professor at the Morrison School of Agribusiness  in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: I’ve always had an interest in food, and in college I read a lot of Michael Pollan, specifically the Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan was coming to give a lecture on campus, and I was able to speak with him for a bit after the event. I told him I was studying math, but had this interest in food and he told me, “we have enough chefs, we have enough journalists, what we need is more policymakers.” That really impacted me.

After college I worked for a few years, not in the food systems space, and I realized that if I wanted a career in this field, I had to go back to school. Ultimately how I got to where I am now is that I wanted to do something that was really interesting to me, using the skill sets I had, and, with enough focus and guidance along the way, have been able to find my niche.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: I’m interested in the intersection between individuals’ choices and the food retail environment, particularly how poor food access impacts shopping patterns, food choices, and health. It’s incredibly complex — where people shop; the assortment of products available to them; whether the available products are healthy and affordable; and what policies are being promoted to address gaps in access.

I’ve been looking at the assortment of products in stores across the United States, and I’ve found that stores located in underserved communities have a statistically significant fewer number of healthy food options available to them.

So the question is, are programs that work to get healthier foods into stores sustainable and effective, and are they breaking down those barriers that keep people from eating healthily? As we see the food retail sector adapting to accommodate more novel shopping methods, like shifting more towards grocery deliveries, there are a lot of questions that arise. Are grocery deliveries more efficient, or more effective than healthy corner store programs? Can we use grocery deliveries as a tool to help economically vulnerable people?

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: I’m fascinated by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the origins, the science, everything about it. Dietary research methods have changed so much over the past decades. We know that the recommended diet might not be the best for every person, yet they inform so many food decisions along the supply chain.

There has been a lot of transdiscplinary research on the DGA, and with new evidence from random-control trials, we’re learning more now that we wouldn’t have known when the guidelines were first established. Can we integrate all of that knowledge into the DGAs? How do you change something that is so institutionalized, that is woven into USDA and HHS?

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: If I had to pick one food, I would pick eggs. They’re so versatile, and they are very transportable. Otherwise, I like whole foods in general. I’m a big believer in Michael Pollan’s, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He’s got a good way of thinking about things.