UW–Madison leads new USDA-funded collaborative project to study U.S. food flows

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are participating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a cooperative agreement to better understand the flow of food from the farm to the final customer.

The project involves modeling and validating perishable food distribution to better understand local and regional food distribution issues in the United States. The work is co-led by Michelle Miller of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and Megan Konar of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with support from university, government and private businesses partners. UW-Madison faculty advisors on the project are Steve Deller and Andrew Stevens (Agricultural and Applied Economics), Ernest Perry (Civil and Environmental Engineering), and Lindsey Day Farnsworth (Division of Extension).

The group modeling process will map the flow of “diet essential,” high-value food commodities that rely on refrigerated transport, developing maps for three commodity groupings – dairy, meats, and fresh produce. Modeling and validation will provide insight on cold-chain dependent foods that are directly consumed by U.S. residents. Understanding the network structure of these specific food movements will highlight unique transportation challenges and needs for essential and perishable products.

“Improved food transport and distribution are high leverage strategies for both mitigation and adaptation during disruptive events, such as climate change or the current COVID-19 Pandemic,” says Miller. “This project is the Wisconsin Idea in action at the national level. We need to better understand how the food system is structured so that we can build resilience at multiple points in the system.”

“Meg Konar has laid important groundwork for understanding how all agricultural crops move and how to downscale these movements to the county level. We are excited to partner with UIUC,” adds Miller, who serves as associate director of CIAS, a UW-Madison center that has been conducting research on sustainable agricultural and food systems since 1989.

Other project advisors are:

  • Quanyan Zhu, New York University, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Hikaru Peterson, University of Minnesota, Applied Economics
  • Zhaohui Wu, Oregon State University, Supply Chain and Operations Management
  • Veronica Villena Martinez, Penn State University, Supply Chain and Information Systems
  • Lindsay Smith, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
  • Phil Gottwals, Agricultural and Community Development Services, LLC
  • Cullen Naumoff, FarmFare, LLC
  • Darren Hau, Schmidt Futures
  • Laura Lengnick, Cultivating Resilience, LLC

The cooperative agreement (20-TMTSD-WI-0012) will be overseen by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service which supports local and regional food systems through research, technical assistance and grants.