Illinois Tech Receives $1 Million Grant to Transform Food Procurement for Greater Equity and Sustainability

USDA and NSF funding backs Illinois Institute of Technology Professor Weslynne Ashton’s project to reshape food systems, promoting local sourcing, racial equity, and sustainability


Weslynne Ashton

CHICAGO—February 13, 2024—A groundbreaking research initiative led by Weslynne Ashton, professor of environmental management and sustainability at Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech), has been awarded a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) in partnership with the National Science Foundation. The project, Community Food Mobilization in Chicago (CF-MOB), aims to leverage the purchasing power of large public institutions to foster a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient food production and distribution system.

The innovative year-long pilot project—which counts Chicago Public Schools, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and Rush University Medical Center as participants—seeks to address the challenges and opportunities within institutional food procurement processes, focusing on the integration of locally sourced foods. CF-MOB “is focused on how institutional supply chains can integrate locally produced food,” says Ashton. “We’ll examine critical policy, economic, and practical barriers, and creatively reimagine the pathways to improving food access.”

Across the country, most of the food served in schools, hospitals, and other public institutions is procured largely through large food service management companies, who in turn source from very large suppliers of staple food products; however, this supply chain does not account for the human and planetary health impacts that it creates, and it often excludes small growers and food producers, particularly those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).

To address this, the CF-MB research will center on an approach that incorporates ethnography and co-design with rigorous technical and economic analyses to model budgetary scenarios and procurement process reforms that could integrate local food suppliers into institutional procurement processes. Embedded in the decision-making process will be the values of the Good Food Purchasing Initiative of Metro Chicago (GFPI): nutrition, valued workforce, local economies, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare.

Specifically, researchers will gather and incorporate the perspectives and values of diverse stakeholders—producers, distributors, buyers, and eaters—with a focus on empowering BIPOC stakeholders to self-determine their participation; select a short list of food products for analysis from the products used by the three participating public institutions; and identify procurement policies and practices that are inhibiting shifts to values-based purchasing in the food supply chains, as well as mechanisms for overcoming those barriers. Researchers will also develop a prototype of the Metro Chicago Good Food Dashboard, a digital platform for sharing findings and models from the project.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC) program, which supports pilot projects that apply emerging technologies and concepts to address community-identified challenges.

Professor Ashton, who holds dual appointments at Stuart School of Business and the Institute of Design (ID), is joined in the project by co-principal investigators Elizabeth J. Durango-Cohen, associate professor of operations management, and Maura Shea, associate professor of civic and community design, who with Ashton co-directs ID’s Food Systems Action Lab. The project also benefits from the participation of Illinois Tech students as research assistants, embodying the university’s commitment to hands-on, transformative education.

Other partners working with Illinois Tech include the Chicago Food Policy Action Council and researchers from Chicago State, DePaul, and Roosevelt universities.

“Many people, including farmers, chefs, nutritionists, food distributors, and local government officials, are working to change the current system to bring fresher, healthier choices to eaters,” Ashton says. “By the end of the pilot we will increase transparency in this food system and provide concrete steps for our partner institutions to activate purchasing from local food businesses aligned with GFPI.”

Disclaimer: This research is supported by the intramural research program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA-NIFA Award #2024-67022-41533.

Photo: Professor Weslynne Ashton

Illinois Institute of Technology

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