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Two people enjoying a beverage at a SLU event.

Hungry for Change

Explore the paths a new Saint Louis University research collaborative creates between academics, industry and community to improve the regional food ecosystem. 

The bustling neighborhoods of St. Louis are hungry for change. Communities seek to uncover solutions to decades of food insecurity that have lingered far too long. This is where the story of a new Saint Louis University research collaborative comes together.

The Food and Justice Action Collaborative (FJAC) is unifying efforts across academia, industry, and the community to address long-standing food insecurity. This idea took shape from the realization that collaboration could help solve St. Louis' recurring troubled history of food and health access. By promoting research efforts and engagement opportunities, FJAC aims to work alongside the St. Louis community — merging its academic resources and community connections to ensure a healthier future.

“[There were people] working in public health, health sciences, and biology,” said Anthony Breitbach, Ph.D., ATC, FASAHP, FNAP, vice dean of SLU’s Doisy College of Health Sciences and co-coordinator of FJAC. “It was also in law. It was in history. It was in education. It was all across our campus.”

Though food has been studied for years at SLU, researchers such as Breitbach saw the need to connect the important yet disparate projects across the University.

“We want to pull these people who are doing great work in the community together in an interprofessional collaborative where we can amplify our efforts and build new research collaborations,” Breitbach said.

Increasing Food Access

FJAC connects St. Louis organizations with the University’s vast resources and expertise, empowering the  St. Louis communities that are leading the charge on regional food access.

SLU students sit at a picnic table filled with cups and cardboard trays filled with food on a sunny day.
SLU students enjoy a meal outside.

“We did not want to take on a big project and impose it on our partners,” Breitbach said. “We want to take these existing organic relationships that we have with the community that are based on community-based needs and start to bring a greater capacity and infrastructure. Then, they can get support at the point where they need it.”

Barry Maciak, a social entrepreneur in residence at SLU, works alongside FJAC to pinpoint opportunities and partnerships. He explained that his role as a social entrepreneur has encouraged him to look at all ways SLU can help build capacity at organizations that are working in food. One organization that has been directly impacted by FJAC’s formation and connections is Propel Kitchens, a nonprofit located at Carter Commons in Pagedale, Missouri, whose efforts feed the greater community, support local food entrepreneurs, and cultivate career development opportunities in food.

“Propel Kitchens uses food as a tool to advance equity and justice in order to improve nutrition,” Maciak said. “It’s focused on creating a social enterprise that produces nutritious foods either under contract or directly for programs, and in the process of that production, we train people with the skills to get into the food industry.”

Propel Kitchens equips St. Louis residents and communities to combat existing economic and health inequities by feeding communities with healthy meal kits and school lunches, hosting culinary education programs, and supporting Black and Brown food entrepreneurs throughout the area.  

Throughout its development, SLU has supported Propel Kitchens and offered resources to help build its infrastructure and support its program development. SLU’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics works closely with their organization to help with recipe development, food production, and bringing applied research into the community.

FJAC also connects SLU’s degree programs to organizations like Propel Kitchens to help pinpoint opportunities where they will be able to support their own communities. In the past year, SLU’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics housed a community kitchen called the Salus Center Kitchen. It was located in the basement of their building, and it supported the research, classwork and skill development of its students. In addition, it served the greater community through the coordination and production of school lunch programming at several local charter schools.

A student wearing an apron reaches over a table to hand a piece of food to a child.
A student serving guests at the 12th Annual SLU Food Day.

When the Salus Center Kitchen closed its doors, the department and FJAC were able to link Propel Kitchens to the existing school lunch programs. This connection successfully transferred the work into the community and gave Propel Kitchens another opportunity to expand its efforts in food preparation and culinary skill development. Currently, they have assumed the operation of two lunch programs, which includes the menu creation, preparation, and delivery of food to the schools.

“Now that Propel Kitchens has taken over [the lunch programs], it is going to be a main product line, and they have two schools this year with three locations,” Maciak said. “Next year, they already have leads for a number of schools that are interested in coming to Propel Kitchens.”

With continued collaboration with FJAC, Propel Kitchens will keep growing as a critical community-based asset for food production and careers in and beyond the Pagedale area.

Improving Community Health

Food is an extremely personal experience that impacts all facets of our health and well-being. Our unique relationships with food are closely connected with our social determinants of health (SDOH), or the environmental conditions in which we are born, grow, work, live, age, and connect with others. In 2022, FJAC members Lauren Landfried, Ph.D., RD, LD, FAND, and Ally Terhaar, M.P.H., SLU Ph.D. candidate, began working closely with St. Louis City’s Department of Health on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant to develop multisector action plans to address SDOH with food access.

Through focus group discussions with community members and partners, they were able to understand what current barriers exist in St. Louis, such as household food insecurity, the rise of chronic disease, malnutrition and food stamp access. From there, they were able to take what they learned and begin enacting plans that would address food access and chronic health concerns in St. Louis City and County.

“It ended up working out nicely that [the work with the CDC] could roll over into this other collaborative effort that was already happening with [St. Louis County], and it's a lot of the same people at the table,” Landfried said.

Now, Landfried and Terhaar are sitting side by side at that table to help enact community health improvement plans for both St. Louis City and County. But, the work they are doing now is only a continuation of the efforts they and other community members have been working on for many years. It is their hope that the formation of FJAC will help bring others into this lane, have a less siloed approach to increasing health by way of food, and amplify all individual efforts that exist in the community.

A student wearing an apron brushes melted butter from a measuring cup onto pastries on a pan while standing at a kitchen counter. Other students are at work in the background.
A student at work in Fresh Gatherings Cafe + Kitchen.

The work of the last 10 years has been dedicated to solving the questions: How do we get everyone to work together toward common goals in food access and security, and how do we make sure we’re optimizing all of our work to move the needle on these issues? The answer to these questions lies in connecting the community to a pipeline of existing resources.

“We're able to translate the work we do as researchers — that is sometimes behind our computer and in our own brain — and start to bring it out into the community that we have around us that is struggling with food access in St. Louis,” Terhaar said. “It can be easy working at an institution to just stay within your bubble. But SLU does a really good job of being open to community members and organizations wanting to play a role in what's already happening.”

With FJAC’s formation, both Landfried and Terhaar are excited about the possibilities ahead that will bring researchers from different disciplines together to work collectively on issues related to food.
“It can be easy for people to get excited about the one thing they are working on,” Terhaar said. “I think that a lot of the collaboration has come out of the work with the city and county, and our goal is to break down those siloes — help people focus on some of these issues and create links.”

Cross-Campus Collaborations

Team members cooking at an event on SLU’s campus.
Team members cooking at an event on SLU’s campus.

Since its formation, FJAC has brought many institutions, organizations, and people under its umbrella to further support their efforts. Over the years, countless student organizations, such as Fresh Gatherings Cafe + Farm, Billiken Bounty, and the Campus Kitchen, have formed to combat food injustice and serve the community on and off campus. And it all stems from a humble garden at the corner of Compton Avenue and Rutger Street.

SLU’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics has a long-standing commitment to giving students the opportunity to grow their culinary skills and learn how to support sustainable food practices. In 2002, SLU established its own urban teaching garden to improve access to healthy, local foods and provide nutrition and garden education opportunities to SLU and the greater St. Louis community. The garden has grown to serve as an education tool for departments beyond nutrition and dietetics.

Students and faculty members from education, culinary arts, physical therapy, and other disciplines come together to use the garden or host community activities such as summer camps. Since its inception, the garden has blossomed into a fully functioning cafe and farm that provides the SLU community with on-site food and nutrition research opportunities and daily fresh meals made from scratch by Fresh Gatherings.
Dan Brewer, M.S., RDN, chef and assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics, manages the operation alongside fellow members of his department. He explained that Fresh Gatherings is a student-run operation currently employing 52 students across a diverse set of majors to create a seasonal menu that utilizes food from the farm, garden, and a variety of local vendors.

“As a hub for community and belonging, we believe in food’s ability to unite people, creating a culture that parallels the University’s core values, [such as] cura personalis,” Brewer said. “We are proud that our kitchen is a space that fosters creativity, educational opportunities, and teamwork in order to share our culinary explorations with our customers.”  

FJAC’s ongoing efforts to work alongside student organizations will only flourish as time goes on. By focusing on addressing long-standing challenges around equity and access, students will continue to develop key skills and their understanding of the issues that plague our community.

“Through campus organizations such as Fresh Gatherings, students have the opportunity to have a greater understanding of these issues, learn important skills to address them, and gain practical experience in community service and advocacy,” Breitbach said.

Focused on Amplifying Efforts

FJAC seeks to serve the needs of food within St. Louis by binding its resources to help the organizations that are leading the charge in the community food ecosystem and supply chain. The collaborative is a connector — pulling together different disciplines to support common goals and address specific needs.

Two students sit on a bench outdoors. One student sips on a beverage while holding up a piece of food to share with her neighbor.
SLU students sharing food at Food Day.

“We want to show the support that we can provide through our actions, attention, and the collaborative relationships we build with them,” Breitbach said. “We want to be there for the long haul, and we want to take what we can add to the mix and build something bigger.”

As FJAC continues to grow, it will continue to connect the dots and carve new paths that will support those making a difference in food. By unifying researchers throughout the University, FJAC hopes to build connections that reach far beyond the walls of SLU to improve food access, justice, and security and help others lead healthy lives.

Story by Mary Pogue, senior copywriter, Paradigm.

This piece was written for the 2023 SLU Research Institute Annual Impact Report. The Impact Report is printed each spring to celebrate the successes of our researchers from the previous year and share the story of SLU's rise as a preeminent research university. Design, photography, and some writing contributions are made by Paradigm. More information on the Impact Report can be found here.