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Planning Grants Received for Possible World Food Policy Center

September 9, 2015

The world’s approach to food policy challenges is largely siloed. Some groups focus primarily on addressing obesity, while others work to combat hunger. Others focus on food safety and security. Still others concentrate on the environmental effects of modern food production.

But just as pulling a loose thread can cause a knitted sweater to unravel, addressing a single food problem in isolation can have unintended consequences. Duke University hopes to address that phenomenon by exploring the possibility of a new World Food Policy Center that would encourage cross-disciplinary problem-solving. The effort also responds to growing student interest in understanding food systems.

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  • Kelly Brownell and Sarah Zoubek

    Exploring the possibilities

    Kelly Brownell (left) has advised the White House, members of Congress, governors, world health and nutrition organizations, and media leaders on issues of nutrition, obesity and public policy.  In 2006 Time magazine listed Brownell among “The World’s 100 Most Influential People." Sarah Zoubek (right) serves as the director of planning.

“There is incredible interest in food topics among students, not only with regard to their own physical health and nutrition. Many are dismayed by problems with the governance of their food system, and they are interested in hunting for solutions,” said Sarah Zoubek.

Zoubek is the new planning director for the envisioned World Food Policy Center at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Sanford School Dean Kelly Brownell, a nationally recognized food policy expert, is principal investigator during the planning phase.

Before coming to Duke in 2013, Brownell was the James Roland Angell Professor of Psychology and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

“When I came to Duke, I saw tremendous potential to build on the strengths and interests of faculty here and at other area universities and institutions,” Brownell said. “A cross-disciplinary Food Working Group formed here about a year and a half ago. Now we have reached the point where we are actively exploring the feasibility of a center.

“Over the next few years, we will develop a list of regional, national and global food policy priorities, identify policy gaps where new research could be particularly helpful, and reach out to potential partners. A great deal of planning is needed in order to determine how to structure this effort to have maximum impact.”

Start-up grants from The Duke Endowment and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation totaling $500,000 made it possible to begin the planning phase.

Zoubek also directs the Food Working Group, a consortium of faculty and students from Sanford, the Nicholas School of the Environment and Nicholas Institute, the schools of medicine, business, and law, the Duke Global Health Institute and others.

She earned a Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in 2013. Previously, she worked as a research analyst at consulting firm Datu Research on topics related to sustainable food production, and New York Sun Works (NYSW), a nonprofit organization.


The Duke Endowment, in Charlotte, N.C., was established in 1924 by industrialist and philanthropist James B. Duke. It is one of the largest private foundations in the Southeast. Through its four program areas -- child care, health care, higher education and rural churches -- it distributes grants to organizations across North Carolina and South Carolina. The endowment’s founder is the same Duke behind Duke University and Duke Energy, but they are all separate organizations.

Since 2000, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) Foundation has invested more than $100 million into North Carolina communities through more than 800 grants. The BCBSNC Foundation is an independent, philanthropic affiliate of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, focused specifically on improving health outcomes of populations served by safety net organizations; increasing physical activity and access to healthy, local food; and increasing the effectiveness of North Carolina nonprofit organizations and their leaders.

Visit the World Food Policy Center website.