​​ASU Receives Part of $3 Million Propel Grant to Address Food Insecurity

News Date
greenhouse photo
From left, Desiree Dennis, Tyson Knight, Dr. Michelle Samuel-Foo, Dr Junhuan Xu, and Caitlin Reeves

By Hazel Scott/ASU

Alabama State University’s Dr. Michelle Samuel-Foo, director of Specialty Crop Research and an assistant professor of biology, has received a one-year grant to help address student food insecurity

The University is one of 15 HBCUs nationwide to benefit from a funding package worth $3 million from the Atlanta-based Propel Center to support university programs focused on agri-tech or arts and entertainment. Apple and the Southern Company partnered to provide funds for the Propel Center, which is committed to advancing equity in education by serving as a global leadership and innovation hub for HBCUs,  

Out of the $3 million, ASU was approved to receive $200,000 for its agri-tech initiative, “Growing Food Security at Alabama State University,” and received $100,000 from Apple for technical support and equipment.

“ASU was one of five HBCUs in the nation to receive the agri-tech grant,” said Samuel-Foo, a Ph.D. entomologist with more than 20 years’ experience in specialty crop agriculture. “It’s pretty sweet that we were able to land the grant….It’s a great opportunity for the program that we are running. … The support from Propel and Apple is tremendous.  I take the grant as a validation of all of the hard work that we, my team and I, have been doing as far as getting the Teaching Garden up and running at Alabama State,” Samuel-Foo said.

The five HBCUs receiving agri-tech grants are Alabama State University, University of the District of Columbia, Morehouse School of Medicine, Delaware State University Foundation, Southern University Agricultural Research & Extension Center, and the Southern University Law Center.

Samuel-Foo credits ASU President, Dr. Quinton T. Ross, Jr., for having the foresight to enter into a partnership with the Propel Center.

“That made us eligible for the first round of funding from Propel.  That was very fortuitous of Dr. Ross. He was thinking ahead on how this partnership could benefit the University. His vision came to fruition. There’s an opportunity for other ASU departments to submit a grant proposal because Propel will have another round of funding coming up this spring.”

Ross praised Samuel-Foo and her team for their work. 

“The Teaching Garden has become an extremely innovative initiative for the University thanks to the hard work of Dr. Samuel-Foo and those who assist her,” said Ross. “Not only are they addressing a global issue, they are also providing unique experiences and opportunities for our students. We are grateful for the Propel Center grant, and for the funding from Apple and the Southern Company. Their visionary philanthropy has afforded ASU the opportunity to expand the research efforts related to the Teaching Garden, as well as impacting other areas across our campus.”

Combating Food Insecurity

Food insecurity on college campuses has long been an issue, Samuel-Foo said, but it’s only in the last 10 or so years that data have backed anecdotes about surviving on instant noodles.

A fall 2019 survey of nearly 167,000 students nationwide found that 39 percent of students at two- or four-year schools had experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to the study. The annual survey was conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which studies basic needs insecurity among college students,

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, Samuel-Foo emphasized.

 In fall 2020, the Hope Center found that 34 percent of college students experienced food insecurity 30 days prior to being surveyed. Students who had COVID-19 were 1.7 times more likely to experience food insecurity than those who hadn’t been infected with the virus.

 Samuel-Foo noted that most universities are making more of an effort to address food insecurity and some college campuses, including ASU, have food pantries and gardens to supplement a struggling student’s diet.

 “With this grant proposal, we aim to increase food security on the Alabama State University campus and reduce hunger by providing our students with access to a healthy diet that includes freshly grown vegetables and nutrition education to allow them to make better choices when it comes to meals. We will utilize Apple-based smartphone technology to reach and connect with our target audience,” she said.

 Apple Technology

 Samuel-Foo said the Apple award will afford ASU the opportunity to provide a technology-based approach to stimulate students’ interest in agriculture while combating local food insecurity.

 “We aim to develop an Apple IOS-based app that integrates seamlessly with existing Apple platforms for ASU student use that directly correlates with our existing Teaching Garden and greenhouse facilities. With the development of the app, interested individuals, including students, faculty and staff, will be able to use technology to accurately identify crops and commodities that are grown at ASU’s Teaching Garden and in the local area while acquiring information about the growing requirements of specific crops,” she emphasized.

 Samuel-Foo said her colleagues and ASU computer science majors will collaborate with the Propel Center staff to develop the mobile app using XCode 13 or other pertinent apple technology resources. The app will be developed for use on Apple smartphones and ensure that it links to and integrates with the crop database and nutritional and recipe information.  Students also will travel to work with the developers at the Propel Center.

“Think about the connection, the networking, the exposure these students will have. I feel we are laying the foundation, not just for students in the biology program where we are centered, but also for students across the University in different departments,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are not just doing the science but are bringing the other aspects along, such as involving students that are computer savvy, or in print or communication, for example. This is a launching platform for other opportunities.”

Under the grant, ASU also will create the “No Food Wasted” initiative whereby students will be able to sign up for alerts to receive text messages when there is extra food available after events on campus, when deliveries are made to the ASU pantry or when they can just stop by the garden to harvest directly.

 “With this, we hope to ensure catered event food and produce from the Teaching Garden aren’t wasted and instead feed our ASU student community. This will be a collaboration between many departments and programs including the ASU Teaching Garden, the Department of Biological Sciences, ASU Food Bank, ASU Campus Dining and Catering Services, and Events Management, among others,” Samuel-Foo stressed.

 As part of the impact grant, ASU will hire a registered dietician/nutritionist to provide nutritional education on incorporating fresh vegetables into one's diet. This information will be linked to the new app.

 More Benefits

 Samuel-Foo said these proposed activities will support the Propel Center’s agri-tech work by helping Alabama State University address a very important real-world issue -- food insecurity at HBCUs.

“Students that work to help develop technology as part of this project, as well as those that are involved with the sustainable agriculture aspect of the program, will have the opportunity to develop as future leaders of innovation, combining sustainable agriculture and technology within underserved communities,”​ she said.​