USF Metropolitan Food Project
The University of South Florida Metropolitan Food Project: A Transdisciplinary Research and Multifaceted Education Project that Improves Biodiversity, Food Security, Nutrition, and Health
Biodiversity is fundamental to providing critical and functional ecosystem services to humanity. The health of our environment depends on a balance of microbial and ecosystem processes that lead to biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, organic matter and microbial life have been declining in agricultural soils, oceans, and natural environments because of global pollution, habitat loss, and desertification. Together these negative impacts on biodiversity degrade natural and managed environments, leading to substantial negative implications on human health.
Microbiome research in the past decade has demonstrated the interconnection between the gut microbiome and human health and the effect of microbiome composition on human metabolism, immune function, and overall health. This interconnection is essential because the human microbiome diversity mirrors the soil and ocean microbiomes, which reflect our environment given the continuous exchange of microbiota among humans, plants, and the environment. While this link between environmental and internal microbial diversity are factors that influence soil and ocean ecosystem health, and ultimately, human health, there exists an alarming decline in the human microbiome diversity/health, qualitatively and quantitatively.
The University of South Florida (USF) Metropolitan Food Project (MFP) brings together a diverse team of soil ecology, marine biology, and human health and nutrition experts from colleges across the USF system, centered on the connections between the biodiversity of soil, oceans, and human microbiomes and their direct and indirect effects on the environment and human health.
The USF MFP aims to improve food security, nutrition, and health for USF and the entire Tampa Bay/Gulf Coast Metropolitan communities through its transdisciplinary research and multifaceted education and outreach programs. The USF MFP project will include a two-plus-acre urban regenerative farm park that will employ sustainable organic growing methods for nutrient-rich food production; a large vegetable growing area and themed gardens; a 5,500 square foot main building showcasing many sustainability features and immersive learning components and providing commercial and teaching kitchens, classrooms, and event space; and an operations building, designed to illustrate the processes and functions of the urban farm and the importance of reconnecting with the natural environment.
Through its nexus of food production, research, and education, the USF MFP will (1) drive transformative research (conducted by experts in human health, soil and microbial ecology, biochemistry, nutrition, agronomy, public health, and social science fields) on soil-food-human-microbiome interactions, which, in turn, will lead to novel products that generate healthier food and (2) develop multifaceted food and nutritional access, healthy initiative education programs, and local food system outreach for the USF and the Tampa Bay/Gulf Coast metropolitan areas to maximize food resilience and sustainability.
Notably, the Tampa Bay/Gulf Coast Metropolitan Region faces critical challenges that influence food’s impact on the intestinal microbiome and human health, including (1) an inadequate supply of nutritious food, which has a profound effect on the microbiota and, thus, on human health; (2) food injustice, where low-income urban consumers lack access to quality nutrient-dense food; (3) a worrisome increase in processed food consumption; (4) soil biodiversity loss, which negatively impacts gut microbiome through vegetable/plant/animal-based food, thereby, increasing Diet-Related Chronic Diseases; (5) high food insecurity levels; and (6) a diverse USF student body, many of whom self-report food insecurity. Moreover, contending with unexpected food security disrupters, such as the current dramatic COVID-19 health and economic conditions and expected prolonged effects, creates an urgent and unique opportunity for the USF MFP to significantly support healthy nutrition by developing sustainable local food systems and education through its applied transdisciplinary research and outreach in the following ways:
- Reestablishing a healthy human microbiota by restoring those bacterial populations which favorably impact human health
- Investigating the interactions among soil, seeds, plants, foods, oceans, and gut microbiomes as well as their impact on human nutrition and health
- Evaluating the root causes and health consequences of the Tampa Bay/Gulf Coast Metropolitan Region’s Food Insecurity challenges to improve healthy food consumption and enhance food security Designing and implementing a multifaceted education, community outreach, and program development plan to improve food security, nutrition, and health that leads to fostering healthy food communities.
Because of the significant impact of food and agricultural systems on the human ecosystem, the USF MFP is strategically positioned as a transdisciplinary and collaborative field-testing hub of social, cultural, educational, health, environmental, and economic applications, as well as an essential driver for improving food security, resilience, and sustainability. Moreover, the USF MFP has future implications for impacting local, state, and federal policies that support soil stewardship and regenerative urban and peri-urban agriculture, contributing to sustainable food system resources, and creating local, regional, and national networking opportunities and collaborations that could lead to new and important research directions. For more information, please contact Gerri Graca, URA for Principal Investigator, Dr. Christian Brechot.