Understanding and Mitigating North Carolina’s Food Deserts

The existence of areas with low accessibility to healthy foods, known as food deserts, have been identified as a serious issue contributing to food insecurity in both urban and rural regions in the United States, especially in areas where minority populations reside. North Carolina is greatly affected by this issue, which is why integrated, interdisciplinary research is underway to examine and understand the multi-dimensional and complex problem.

A team of North Carolina researchers is one year in to their three and a half-year $750,000 NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems grant. The team is exploring factors that contribute to improving food accessibility, while maximizing agricultural production and minimizing negative environmental impacts on the land and water used in food production. The grant funds the modeling of linkages between biophysical processes and socio-economic factors, and how these impact agricultural production and food consumption patterns.

The complexity of North Carolina’s food desert issue supports the complexity of this research team; five researchers in five departments across two HBCUs are bringing their data modeling expertise to bear on understanding and ultimately finding solutions to this problem.

Dr. Manoj Jha, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, is joined by co-PIs Dr. Chyi Lyi (Kathleen) Liang in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Dr. Lyubov Kurkalova in the College of Business and Economics, Dr. Greg Monty in the College of Engineering and Dr. Leila Hashemi Beni in the College of Science and Technology. The team also includes Dr. Timothy Mulrooney, associate professor in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences at North Carolina Central University.

“North Carolina is an extremely productive state agriculturally,” explains Dr. Liang. “We are number one and two in the nation in so many crops and food animals, yet we have a disproportionate number of food deserts. Why does a state with such a bountiful supply of resources have challenges providing nutritious food to its citizens?”

The research team is focusing on three geographically-varied, food-challenged communities in North Carolina with changing demographic profiles.  The study area includes the state’s eastern coastal region represented by Bladen County, the piedmont region represented by Guilford County, and the western mountain region represented by Rutherford County.

Each regional testbed was selected to (a) verify methods of analysis for three distinct geographic, biophysical and socio-economic characteristics such as income, employment, household composition, education, and race and ethnicity, (b) test and validate the integrated modeling system developed during the project, and (c) compare and contrast food desert characteristics and sensitivity in different geographic areas.

In addition to involving faculty members across disciplines, the project includes educational experiences for underrepresented undergraduate as well as graduate students, further building research capacity. The project also involves engagement with stakeholders such as local and state planning agencies, extension agents, agricultural producers and food retailers. Having a broad, interdisciplinary team will contribute to the design, development and delivery of policy-relevant information for use at the state, county and city level, to support food security going forward.

Since 2001, the National Science Foundation has funded projects through its Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program that examine the complex interactions between human and natural systems. The CNH program considers humans and their environment as one interconnected system; the grants lead to new understanding of how people can best interact with the environment on a planet with limited, and often irreplaceable, resources.


N.C. A&T Launches Southeast Urban Sustainability Summit Event

Dr. Vicki Foust at N.C. A&T has received a $50K NSF grant to fund an upcoming event to advance research in urban sustainability. The Southeast Urban Sustainability Summit (SEUSS) will develop a research network comprised of academics, municipalities, industries, and advocacy groups with the vision of advancing research in urban sustainability in the state of North Carolina. SEUSS will be held August 14-15, 2019 on the campus of N.C. A&T in Greensboro.

SEUSS will convene a diverse network of stakeholders from across the state committed to identifying and addressing North Carolina’s most pressing sustainability and resilience issues related to energy, water, waste, transportation, housing, health/safety and food/agriculture. The collaborations formed at SEUSS will seek additional funding to conduct the research needs identified at the conference. The resulting research agenda will have implications for the entire southeastern U.S.

SEUSS is led by Principal Investigator Dr. Vicki Foust with the Center for Energy Research and Technology at N.C. A&T, in collaboration with leadership from N.C. A&T, UNC Greensboro, Appalachian State University, NC State University, the Southeast Sustainability Director’s Network, the Environmental Defense Fund and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

For more information about SEUSS and to register for the event, please contact Dr. Vicki Foust at vafoust@ncat.edu, 336-285-4738.


Greensboro, NC – October, 2018 – A team of N.C. A&T researchers led by Dr. Ali Karimoddini received a three-year, $600K grant from the National Science Foundation to fly a team of drones above the university’s 492-acre farm, located off McConnell Road on the east side of Greensboro, for crop health monitoring, a revolutionary step toward smart agriculture.

N.C. A&T’s University Farm is a working, producing farm that raises crops and livestock. Students and faculty in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences use the farm for research and education, while the Cooperative Extension uses the farm to test and demonstrate new crops and farming practices before introducing them to North Carolina’s farming community. The objective of Dr. Karimoddini and his team is to develop a distributed airborne monitoring system to detect possible zones of crop damage or nutrient deficiency at this farm, and eventually many others. Unlike traditional crop management methods that use farmers or ground vehicles for assessing crop health status, using autonomous technology to perform aerial monitoring of agricultural fields saves time and money, while preventing damage to crops.

A multi-disciplinary team of three N.C. A&T faculty members representing three university Colleges are supporting this research grant. Dr. Karimoddini in the College of Engineering is the project principal investigator and director of the Autonomous Cooperative Control of Emergent Systems of Systems (ACCESS) Laboratory with a focus on cooperative control of systems of autonomous vehicles. Dr. Leila Hashemi-Beni from the College of Science and Technology is the Director of the Remote Sensing and Geospatial Science Research Laboratory with a focus on data processing of remote sensing data from unmanned autonomous vehicles, as well as airborne and satellite imagery for precision agriculture and environment management. Dr. Abolghasem Shahbazi in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences is director of the CREST Bioenergy Center. In this project, he will use the remote sensing data to evaluate the crop and biomass yield produced at N.C. A&T farm.

“In order to accommodate rapidly-growing food demands and increase the quality and quantity of agricultural production, it is necessary to improve farming management practices and technological developments in agricultural fields,” explains Karimoddini. “This project will blend our university’s expertise in control, robotics, remote sensing and agricultural engineering to develop new approaches for automated monitoring of smart agricultural systems.”

This NSF award supports fundamental research to develop innovative techniques for smart agricultural systems by employing a distributed airborne networked sensor system for a team of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to survey a farm; what is learned here east of Greensboro can benefit farms across the entire state and beyond.

Integrated with the proposed research is an innovative education and outreach plan that will engage a diverse range of students, farmers, and local community members in STEM-relevant activities aimed at increasing public awareness on the new technologies which can be brought to bear on furthering the development of precision agriculture.


Professor Lyubov A. Kurkalova is Leading Research to Understand the Economics of Forest Management Practices and Productivity

North Carolina is home to multiple varieties of fast-growing trees with vast potential for products ranging from wood pellets to packaging to feedstock for evolving bioenergy markets. But how can managers make better decisions to maximize the productivity of their forests and the economic impact of this sector?

lkurkalova_2014A North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University professor is part of a research team seeking answers to that question. Professor Lyubov A. Kurkalova from the N.C. A&T College of Business and Economics is the economics lead on a three-year joint research initiative between A&T and North Carolina State University’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources that was recently awarded $103,470 for the first year of its work.

The goal of the project is to perfect a forest productivity and economic model that supports a web-based interactive tool for forest managers, who can use the tool to make better decisions on managing their production. Additionally, a proposed regional-scale economic analysis is aimed at informing policy-makers and potential industrial users of wood feedstock.

“North Carolina has significant built-in advantages in this industry,” said Kurkalova. “Fast growing trees, like poplar, green ash, sycamore and loblolly pine can be grown productively throughout the state,” she said. “The point is helping managers make the best decisions regarding which of those varieties they should cultivate for their particular circumstances and needs.”

This is the latest addition to Kurkalova’s expanding research portfolio, which revolves around environmental and energy economics. She has three other current projects underway with support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service Southern Research Station. Her research has been published in a variety of economics and interdisciplinary journals, including Energy Economics, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, Biomass and Bioenergy, and Environmental Modeling and Software.

Kurkalova is part of a growing research enterprise at North Carolina A&T supported with more than $60 million in external funding in fiscal year 2016. A&T is the third-most productive public research university in the state, trailing only the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and North Carolina State in federal, state and private support.