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Research in Focus: Food

Researchers at Saint Louis University are taking an interdisciplinary approach to understand one of the most basic necessities of life: Food.

See three researchers and the dean of the Doisy College of Health Sciences discuss the food-related challenges facing our city and our world today, and how SLU is best equipped to tackle them.

“How can we continue to feed a growing population in an equitable and sustainable manner?”

This question drives all the researchers at Saint Louis University who are studying food. Food research at SLU spans the entire academic spectrum, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities.

From Seed to Table

“We have individuals throughout the University, at the Doisy College of Health Sciences, but also in Arts and Sciences and Public Health and Social Justice — everything from seed to table,” said Mardell Wilson, Ed.D., dean of the Doisy College of Health Sciences.

This inclusive, interdisciplinary approach to food research gives SLU a unique, comprehensive perspective on the issue, distinguishing the University from other institutions. 

“How we put all those individuals together, I think, can make us a dynamic place to not only study, but to conduct your research, as well,” Wilson said.

Allison Miller, Ph.D., professor of biology at SLU, studies agriculture and sustainable practices. Miller has a particular interest in perennial plants, diversity and evolution. Her lab is working with the Land Institute to identify wild perennial species for crop development.

One example is Kernza,® which some believe can be developed into a perennial wheat alternative.

“[Kernza] makes not only the product that we can harvest and then use to make flour and bake bread, but also this extensive root system that can hold and preserve our soil,” said Miller.

While Miller studies food production, Ellen Barnidge, Ph.D, associate professor of behavioral science and health education, studies the availability and accessibility of food.

Food insecurity affects millions of people in the United States, and Barnidge has previously found the issue to be of particular concern in St. Louis.

“Some of the data shows that one in four kids lives in a home that’s food insecure, and ‘food insecure’ means that there’s not enough food in the home for all members to live an active and healthy lifestyle,” said Barnidge.

Through a partnership with Danis Pediatrics, Barnidge is standardizing screenings for food insecurity and connecting those in need with appropriate resources.

“We connect them with a student to partner with them to look for resources, and then we’re looking at, ‘Do they come to well-child visits more often?’” said Barnidge. “We have so many young students coming up who want to be part of the solution and they want to be part of making progress. I think that’s really where the hope lies.”

Understanding the History

What distinguishes food research at SLU is its strong, interdisciplinary nature. Food history, for example, provides SLU researchers with vital contextual knowledge to the food-related challenges facing our world today.

“Food history, for me, is a prism to look at different social issues in the past, mainly food systems and food security,” said Fabien Montcher, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at SLU. Montcher’s research interests include the social history of the Renaissance and food history.

Montcher believes that understanding the challenges of the past can inform sustainable, effective solutions to the challenges of today.

“The early modern period gives us a lot of insight about the world becoming global," said Montcher. "We can retrace the genealogy of modern states in order, maybe, to reform, to challenge, modern politics.” 

Montcher has studied the different political and social roles that food and taste have played throughout history.

“Food products were also circulating with these ideas that were circulating across the early modern world," Montcher said. "There is an opportunity to trace the political history of citruses and the history of political tolerance.” 

St. Louis: A Hub for Agriculture

St. Louis is uniquely positioned to be a national hub for agriculture, and given the strength of its researchers, SLU is uniquely positioned to leverage the resources in the area and build regional partnerships that can translate to global impact.

“We have an opportunity around food, food production, food research, in ways that maybe other cities can’t leverage,” said Wilson.

Miller, who holds a unique joint faculty position between the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and SLU, is enthusiastic about doing her research in St. Louis.

“One of the benefits of being in a place like St. Louis is that we can connect the resources of the University with the resources of the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Danforth Plant Science Center to try to forge new paths forward to meet these challenges,” Miller said.

In September 2017, Miller was one of several faculty members who planned the SLU Summit on Food and the Environment, which built upon these collaborations.

Barnidge believes that SLU’s Catholic, Jesuit mission is another reason the University is qualified to lead in this field.

“I knew I wanted to be at an institution that had a bigger mission, really knowledge in action,”  Barnidge said. “You can have a mission, but it’s the people who are carrying out that mission on a day-to-day basis, doing research, that seems to matter.”

A desire to build a better and more just world for all, informed by this mission, drives all of this food research at SLU.

“Through a range of different types of studies in different disciplines, this institution can make a difference in how we eat and the impacts of our food systems on the planet and on our city,” Miller said.

About the Faculty

Learn more about the four faculty members featured in this article and video:

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Ellen Barnidge, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Behavioral Science and Health Education

Barnidge is an expert of behavioral science and health inequity, and she is a leader on the issue of food insecurity. Her passion for community engagement informs much of her work; her research has previously provided novel and vital insights into the issue of food insecurity in St. Louis. Through an ongoing partnership with Danis Pediatrics, Barnidge is helping medical practitioners and community members quickly identify and confront the issue of food insecurity. 

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Allison Miller, Ph.D.

Professor, Biology

Miller's research focuses on perennial plant diversity and evolution. The goal of her research is to "advance the basic understanding of perennial plants and apply this knowledge to perennial crop improvement, the development of novel crops for perennial agriculture systems, and the conservation of perennial plant genetic resources." She holds a first-of-its-kind joint faculty position between SLU and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. She is also a Research Associate at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. In 2017, Miller was one of several SLU faculty members who planned the first ever SLU Summit on Food and the Environment, and she is currently one of two faculty members planning for a SLU Center for Food and the Environment

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Fabien Montcher, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, History

Montcher studies early modern history, social history, and food history. His work examines the connections between early modern forms of violence, cultures of knowledge, and state intelligence systems through a European and global Iberian lens. Montcher is currently finishing a book manuscript entitled "Scholars of Fortune: Iberian Scholars and the Making of Politics in Late Renaissance Wars." More information on this manuscript, as well as Montcher's other research projects, can be found here

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Mardell Wilson, Ed.D., RD, LDN

Dean and Professor, Doisy College of Health Sciences

Wilson has served as the Dean of the Doisy College of Health Sciences since 2014. During her tenure, Wilson has been a champion of both students and researchers in the health sciences. She has provided vital leadership to both her college and to the University overall; she has served as the chair of a number of search committees, including for the Dean of Parks College and, most recently, for the Dean of the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing. Outside of SLU, Wilson is affiliated with a number of national organizations including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professionals, and the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.