How We Work

Bridging to Better Policy

Bringing people back into the policy process.

Shaping Policy through Strategic Research

We aim to improve practices and policies that affect our food system, and to generate positive impacts on public health, the environment, economic development, and social/cultural traditions, with a focus on low-income, marginalized communities, and equity.

To do this work, we are bridging the worlds of academia, industry, governance, community and culture. We look at connection points across pillars of our food systems such as hunger and malnutrition; obesity and diet-related disease; agriculture and the environment; and food safety and food defense, to create real-world policy and practice solutions.

We believe that only a small proportion of research has the policy and practice impact it might have. Most academic researchers are not trained to create policy and practice impact from their work, engagement with policy makers or practitioners is not encouraged or rewarded in most settings, and the communication of scientific findings occurs within the academic community but rarely outside it.

We seek to change that dynamic at Duke through a process we call strategic research. It’s a systematic way of looking at academic research and incorporating community & stakeholder engagement. This bridging helps to focus next steps on real gaps in knowledge important to policy and practice decisions.

Graphic of strategic research process


Listening to all voices in the food system.

We bring people together to help develop creative solutions around targeted local, national and world food issues.

The first step in our model is to identify individuals who are directly experiencing the problems, agents for change, and researchers working across many different fields that intersect with the food system, and human and environmental health.

Change agents can include elected leaders at any level of government, key individuals in regulatory agencies, foundations, legal authorities and legislators, the media, non-governmental organizations, and global institutions, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, or World Health Organization.

By bringing these individuals together in a convening, we are able to uncover important gaps in knowledge and practice that have not been identified in the scientific literature or addressed by policy. This allows us to create real insight and information flow back to the policy world.

Such input also helps us develop strategic questions to pursue through research and relationship building. This is important because researchers can be aware of questions that are relevant to policy, but they gain invaluable context and insight from individuals or institutions in a position to make policy advances.


Through our model of strategic research that includes community input, we aim to fill gaps of knowledge with science, and cultural, historical and humanities research.

Our research agenda is driven by insight we gain from interactions between community members, researchers and policy makers.

We look at the full realm of medical, environmental, cultural, historical and humanities research and methods of discovery as a source of insight. We pair this with community input, and the insight that comes from practitioners--recognizing that policy may not always be the solution to food system issues.

Forging real relationships between practitioners, researchers, policy makers and communities helps to strengthen evidence-based policy making and practice. Such collaborative engagement keeps our work grounded.

Examples of issues that could be emphasized by policy makers are the projected impacts of competing policy approaches to a problem, costs of implementation, public support for various policies, or how different approaches to framing a policy might affect perceptions.

Test Policy & Practice Solutions

Creating the strongest possible evidence base for moving forward.

We test policy and practical solutions at local levels and explore scaling up and replicating what is working.

The most effective food systems are those that are regionally, culturally and environmentally responsive. Such systems innately address community-determined needs, focus on lasting change, and promote sustainable community ownership.

Pilot projects allow us to test and adjust our ideas, explore the feasibility of new approaches to a problem, and to develop real partnerships with community organizations and leaders.

Perhaps more importantly, real world testing allows us to minimize unintended consequences of public policy.

Evaluate Solutions

Assessing and evaluating solutions to create impact and prevent unintended consequences.

Assessment and evaluation of research methods and pilot projects allows us to build credible recommendations because they are based on rigorous measurement.

We evaluate policy and pilot projects from a community ownership lens. We believe that to make lasting and community-relevant change, food policy and practice needs to be informed by the historical context of the community and to address real community needs.

We believe that community members need to be engaged in solutions building, and outcomes need to cultivate sustainable community ownership.


We are keenly interested in the unique and common needs of urban and rural communities, and seek to better understand what is translatable, transferrable or scalable from local to global applications. Such analysis forms the basis of evidence-based public policy and practice.

Such work also allows other communities, regions or countries to quickly determine whether the policies, processes and recommendations we develop could be applicable to other locations.


Bridging disconnected parts of the food system, and food system governance.

A central goal of our communications and outreach efforts is to foster a bridge between people affected by food systems problems, and researchers, practitioners and policy makers.

There is much unrealized potential for research to contribute to the common good. We recognize that policy makers and community leaders need information to make decisions, and that there is a real need for easily understood data, analysis and recommendations.

Through our strategic research model, we place significant emphasis on information sharing and go beyond peer-reviewed publication to communicate policy and practice best bets and recommendations.