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Healthy food

There is a future in poverty, and that unfortunate fact has become thought for food at the UW-Madison, where its poverty research program was chosen this week to host the nation’s research on meeting the needs of the hungry.

More people short of money mean the science of “food insecurity” is not only constantly changing, but presenting challenges that need to be identified and met. The food stamp program alone will cost an estimated $60 billion this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program delivered limited nutrition to one in eight Americans last October, a 22 percent increase in one year.

UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty will establish a Center for National Food and Nutrition Assistance Research, funded with a federal grant of $1 million over four years. The center will be led by professor Judith Bartfeld, a nutrition researcher in the university’s Department of Consumer Science.

The center’s work will identify what’s important, what needs attention, Bartfeld said.

The food stamp and school lunch and breakfast programs are a few of the areas where the center will encourage innovation in research. The center would also attract and mentor scholars.

“We aren’t limited to internal expertise in the kind of research we support,” she said. “We will be establishing priorities internally but will select the highest-quality proposals nationwide.”

How those food assistance programs work together and in a broader context with economic, policy, health and food systems is what “we’re interested in researching,” she said.

That not only involves what works but what doesn’t work. The center’s sponsor, the USDA’s Research Innovation and Development Grants Program, is keen to find out “how well programs are meeting needs, how they can do a better job, how effective are food stamps as economic stimulus, and what can (caseloads) tell us about changing poverty rates and patterns of need?” said Bartfeld.

The center is a good fit for the poverty institute — the nation’s first poverty research center — which was founded in 1966 to study why Americans live in poverty and what can be done to end it. It has done research for the USDA’s program for the past 10 years.

“We couldn’t do one without the other,” said Timothy Smeeding, the institute’s director and a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

“They fit because of the networks we have already developed through Judy’s earlier research, and because of this fitting our other dissemination functions,” Smeeding said.

“We don’t have to reinvent,” Bartfeld said. “We can follow our existing infrastructure.”

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