Daniel Oerther

Honorable Mention recipient of the 2020 Constellation Prize for Food Security

Photo credits: Wikimedia

Everyone must eat. But not everyone has reliable access to safe, affordable food, which is suitable for a healthy lifestyle and cultural preference. When someone lacks access to food, it’s known as “food insecurity”. Globally, approximately 800 million people are food insecure, and in the United States one in five Americans experiences one or more episodes of food insecurity each year. Designing food systems – including the stocks and flows among producers, processors, distributors, consumers, and post-consumers – offers an opportunity to employ engineering expertise to solve complex societal challenges. 
 
Food deserts--defined as locations where people have limited access to healthful foods--represent a challenge in both the inner city and the rural farming community. Poverty, zoning, transportation, and cultural preferences are among the factors contributing to the persistence of food deserts. Solutions to food deserts require an integration of enabling policy and suitable technology. And this is where engineers have an opportunity to expand the historical boundaries of engineering practice and education to solve a complex societal challenge.
 
Despite a history as a key player in the processing and distribution of food, the Cincinnati region also suffers from food deserts. As the co-chair of a team-–including politicians, dieticians, pastors, grocers, and community representatives-–Dan led the study of food deserts of Cincinnati. His team designed and implemented an action plan, which included: hosting health fairs to raise awareness within the community; creating community gardens to improve access to whole foods; and mobilizing students and educators to challenge the status quo and develop long-term sustainable solutions to reduce and then eliminate food deserts.

 

The engineering design process proved invaluable to categorize and organize information and to facilitate an iterative brain-storming approach to design. The final outcome included a report presented to Cincinnati City Council, and follow-up assessments and reports documented ongoing progress to address food deserts throughout Cincinnati.
 
The effort in Cincinnati was the start of a journey to push the boundaries of engineering practice and education. The policy skills developed addressing food deserts in Cincinnati were scaled-up to address food and nutrition security globally as a delegate representing the US Government during the United Nations Second International Conference on Nutrition. Looking forward, these prior efforts--starting in Cincinnati and expanding globally--will next contribute to the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for Rome, Italy in September 2021.
 
Engineers have a professional obligation to hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Working at the interface of public policy and engineering design--as Dan has been championing--offers a chance for engineers to reimagine what engineering is for: to tackle complex societal challenges through 21st century approaches by integrating people, planet, prosperity, partnerships, and peace for sustainable development, from local to global.

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