‘Unfavorable’ Food Environments Found Near HBCUs
Students at North Carolina’s 10 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) face limited options for finding healthy food for purchase at stores within a 15-minute walking or driving distance of their campuses, a recent analysis co-led by the Nicholas School’s John Fay has shown.
More than two-thirds of the food and beverage retailers surrounding each of the 10 campuses fall into an “unfavorable” category for offering nutritious options – meaning they primarily sell processed snack foods, sweets, alcohol, sugary drinks and other foods that don’t contribute to a healthy diet.
Convenience stores, liquor stores and bakeries or candy shops are collectively three times more common than supermarkets, health food stores and produce markets.
“Our findings suggest we need to look more closely at the distribution of these stores to see if this is a pattern specific to HBCUs or one that is more generally found around all campuses,” said Fay, a lecturer in the Nicholas School’s Geospatial Analysis Program who developed the maps used to evaluate the off-campus food environments.
To answer that question, he and his colleagues plan to expand the study to HBCUs in other states and conduct similar evaluations of off-campus food environments around predominantly white schools.
Numerous studies have shown that the proximity of healthy food retailers to university campuses is an important factor in supporting healthy eating behaviors among students.
Fay conducted the study with Helene Vilme, a social scientist at Duke’s School of Medicine, and other colleagues from Duke, North Carolina Central University, Bennett College, and Saint Augustine’s University. They published their findings in the Journal of American College Health.
The study evaluated retail food environments surrounding Bennett College, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Livingstone College, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina Central University, Saint Augustine’s University, Shaw University and Winston-Salem State University.
$2.4M Grant Funds Clean Energy Research
A Nicholas School-led initiative to boost clean electricity production has received a $2.44 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The grant will support work to design an energy system management framework that enables U.S. electricity providers to improve the efficiency and reliability of conventional and renewable power generators in their systems while lowering operational costs and cutting emissions.
“Our goal is to make a meaningful and tangible contribution to the transformation of the U.S. electricity sector into a cleaner and more efficient system,” said Dalia Patiño-Echeverri, Gendell Family Associate Professor of Energy Systems and Public Policy, who will lead the three-year project.
“Operating under conditions of uncertainty places burdens on any business or enterprise. For electricity system operators, these burdens are compounded by a changing climate, uncertain demand, and the variable performance of conventional and renewable power generators,” she said.
To help relieve some of these burdens, the new model will include specially developed algorithms that let energy managers more effectively anticipate operational variables, such as when weather conditions decrease solar or wind power generation, or when short-term spikes in consumer demand require redirecting available power supplies, tapping reserves or bringing new resources on line.
The framework should be ready for integration into industry practice by summer 2023.
Species-Tracking Technology Wins 2020 Ocean Award
A database that puts a world of useful mapping data into the hands of environmental decision makers is bringing new accolades to the Nicholas School.
The Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system is an open-access online database that maps the movements of sea turtles, whales, sea birds and other migratory species through the open ocean.
It was launched last year by the Nicholas School’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab in partnership with the University of Queensland and more than 50 other institutions.
Earlier this year, the database won the prestigious Innovation Award from the Blue Marine Foundation’s annual Ocean Awards program in recognition of its potential for improving ocean management and reducing stress on the species that live there.
“The long-distance migrations of sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds and fish expose them to multiple stresses and governance regimes. Understanding how they use the ocean, and when and where their migrations will take them, is crucial for their conservation,” said Patrick N. Halpin, director of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab. “MiCO helps us do that in ways that weren’t possible before.”
Halpin explained that while the amount of data describing the migratory movements of many ocean species is growing, much of it remains buried in scientific literature or is available only through databases so complicated that most managers can’t use them. This has created an information bottleneck that hinders sustainable ocean management.
MiCO unlocks the bottleneck by collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data on species worldwide and organizing it into a streamlined, searchable database that anyone – from lead scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme to community volunteers protecting turtle nests in coastal North Carolina – can easily access and use.
Shedding Light on a Dark Biosphere
By providing the first estimate of how much hydrogen is available to fuel microbial life in the sunless sub-seafloor crust beneath the Mid-Ocean Ridge (MOR), a recent Nicholas School study is helping shed light on one of Earth’s least understood biospheres.
“Until now, we had no good idea of the overall size of these microbial communities or how much hydrogen they consume. This new study provides insights and highlights their possible impact on Earth’s climate,” said Lincoln Pratson, Gendell Family Professor of Energy and Environment.
By using a specially designed model, Pratson and his team were able to estimate the amount of hydrogen gas being produced annually by nine geological sources beneath the MOR, an area that covers about 10% of the entire oceanic crust. They also estimated how much of this gas was subsequently being released into the ocean through hydrothermal vents on the nearby seafloor.
By subtracting the amount of gas being released from the amount being produced, they estimated that about 10 million metric tons of the gas remain unaccounted for and are presumably being consumed by microbes living within the MOR’s volcanic crust. Microbes in this sunless environment use hydrogen, released when water flows through the crust’s iron-rich rock, as their fuel to convert carbon dioxide into food.
Aside from shedding light on the size of microbial communities living beneath the MOR, the finding suggests that these tiny creatures may play an outsized role in regulating Earth’s climate by consuming enough hydrogen gas to prevent a 10% bump in Earth’s atmospheric hydrogen budget. Since hydrogen gas can hasten the build-up of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere, the effect of such an increase could be significant.
Pratson and his team published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A Pioneer in Planetary Health
Many companies carefully consider how their products affect human health and work to make sure they are safe. But research by the Nicholas School’s Deborah Gallagher shows they often fail to consider how their environmental impacts can undermine those efforts.
Gallagher, professor of the practice of environmental and resource policy and a leader in the emerging field of planetary health, is working to change that.
She recently led a study for the United Nations’ Global Compact about how companies’ policies and actions affect the environment and people’s health, and what they are doing to address these intertwined issues. The study culminated with a report examining practices at 50 companies.
“There were very few that had any sort of strategy for jointly looking at environment and health impacts,” Gallagher said. “They have not tended to look at their impacts on air – for example, greenhouse gases – as having a direct effect on people.”
To encourage companies to reconsider their approach, Gallagher’s report includes case studies and an assessment tool to help managers understand the strategic advantages of integrating health and environmental goals throughout their value chains.
Read more stories featured in the Duke Environment Magazine Fall 2020 issue.