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ASU partnership earns $18M through USDA NextGen food systems grant

Nearly $5M will support ASU students studying sustainable food systems


Students view a field of farmland

According to the USDA, there are more than 59,400 job openings annually in food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences. Photo courtesy Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory/ASU

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June 21, 2023

Arizona State University, in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Hawaiʻi Pacific University, University of Guam and the nonprofit FoodCorps, was awarded an $18 million NextGen grant by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to directly support future leaders of our food systems.

Nearly $5 million will be directed to ASU’s School of Sustainability students via scholarship support and paid internships over five years to study sustainable food systems.

The NextGen grant is a one-time funding opportunity supported through the Inflation Reduction Act. The program will create a pipeline of diverse young leaders trained and ready for jobs in the food and agriculture sector, especially at the USDA. It also aims to engage communities through hosting conversations about future USDA workforce needs based on community-identified gaps in service. 

Through this partnership, ASU will lead Model USDA, a multiday experience for students to learn more about the USDA. ASU will also design and lead the creation of a MyUSDA app, a free educational tool that places students in the roles of USDA problem-solvers. Over five years, 15 simulations will be launched that can be used by faculty anywhere free of charge. 

Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, will act as ASU’s principal investigator. She said a partnership between universities in Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam makes sense because for the most part, agricultural policy is dominated by Midwestern states and California. 

“I don’t find that our voices are loud enough in food and agriculture debates, in Washington, D.C., and at USDA,” Merrigan said. “Arizona, Hawaii  and Alaska were the last states to join the U.S., and Guam the last territory. Our geographies are very different, and we offer different perspectives, particularly since we find ourselves on the frontlines of climate change. This grant will create a pipeline of new leaders ready to fill those jobs and make their voices heard.” 

Melissa Nelson, a professor of Indigenous sustainability in the School of Sustainability, is the co-principal investigator for ASU. She said the grant will provide $4,114,625 in scholarship support and $838,320 in paid internships. These funds will go toward students obtaining their master's and bachelor's degrees through sustainable food system programs in the School of Sustainability. With these student benefits and programmatic costs combined, the value of this award to ASU is nearly $6.7 million.

“A priority for the NextGen grant program is diversifying the workforce,” Nelson said. “I’m excited that some of the scholarship money and paid internships will go to students from Indian Country, first-generation college students and people from other underrepresented populations.”

According to the USDA, there are more than 59,400 job openings annually in food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences. This grant-funded partnership aims to fill some of those openings by engaging 9,000-plus students from across the country, with concentrated support for students from underrepresented communities including Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and Guam. 

Each grant partner will conduct at least one community meeting each year to solicit ideas on USDA workforce needs based on local perspectives. The University of Alaska Fairbanks will also design and lead an annual climate and food symposium, which all scholarship and paid internship recipients will attend. 

“This funding is going to be so empowering to young people studying food systems and agriculture as they get through their college degrees and get paid internships that are pertinent to career goals,” Merrigan said. “It exemplifies ASU’s charter: creating a culture of inclusion and measuring our success based on the success of our students.” 

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