Research conducted by Ruben Estuardo Piñeda Delgado MIDP’17 was presented at the Food Policy Regional Leaders Summit, held Sept. 8-9 at the Duke Endowment headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. The summit brought together leaders at government agencies, universities and nonprofits across North and South Carolina to discuss innovative, cross-cutting solutions to pressing food issues such as hunger, obesity and food safety in the Carolinas.

Piñeda conducted his research as part of his summer internship with a Sanford School of Public Policy team operating on planning grants to investigate establishing a World Food Policy Center at Duke.

“[Piñeda]’s assistance this summer was critical to the success of our summit,” said Sarah Zoubek, director of planning for the proposed center. “The final report was highly complimented by summit participants and added much depth to its content. This research also lays important groundwork for any of our future work in the Carolinas.”

The purpose of the summit was to connect policy communities that often work separately, and to get feedback on where the center should direct its initial efforts to bridge the worlds of science and policy across a wide range of food-related issues. The Sanford School, The Duke Endowment and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation hosted the summit.

“The study provided a good starting point for generating discussion among the different policy actors at the summit, and the hope is that the proposed center can continue to convene and interact with these stakeholders to develop creative solutions that can make a positive impact in the Carolinas,” Piñeda said.

Food Policy Issues Facing the Carolinas


Adult obesity rates in both North and South Carolina hover at around 30 percent, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes among the affected population.

Edgecombe, Halifax and Robeson counties, the North Carolina counties with the highest obesity rates, also had the lowest life expectancy at birth and ranked among the highest in inequality, unemployment and poverty.

Recommendations that have been put forth elsewhere to address these issues include encouraging state legislators to fund health initiatives and offer tax incentives for worksite wellness programs. Others include the implementation of 30 minutes of physical activity per day for all K-8 students, screen time reduction initiatives, and a statewide system for gathering and reporting student fitness data.

Food insecurity and hunger

Approximately one in five people in North and South Carolina are food insecure, meaning they lack access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.

A recent study from the Food Research Action Center (FRAC) put the Greensboro/High Point area of North Carolina at the top of its list of cities with high rates of food hardship. Columbia and the Greenville/Mauldin/Easley areas of South Carolina also made the top-20 list.

Recommendations gathered by Piñeda include providing a livable minimum wage, offering summer food assistance programs, and collecting excess food from farmers and grocery stores for food rescue programs.

Agriculture and environment

Agriculture accounts for 17 percent of North Carolina’s income, with the state ranking first in the production of tobacco and sweet potatoes and second in the production of poultry and pigs. 

At the same time, drought and an aging population of farmers threaten agriculture’s place in the state economy. North Carolina also ranks as one of the states with the greatest loss of farmland, with 1,400 farms lost to development between 2002 and 2007.

Recommendations implemented elsewhere include providing income opportunities through crop diversification, facilitating grants to agricultural producers for renewable energy systems, and implementing new irrigation techniques to increase water efficiency.

Food safety

About 48 million Americans get sick and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses each year. There were more than 300 food-related outbreaks in the Carolinas between 2005 and 2015. In addition, North and South Carolina are among the 10 states with the most instances of pesticide-related illnesses and death.

Recommendations implemented elsewhere include giving health departments sufficient support for public health initiatives, improving inspections of facilities that serve food, enforcing the use of warning labels, and improving investigation and reporting mechanisms for food-related outbreaks.

Piñeda, a Fulbright Scholar and a native of Guatemala, holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City. He founded Abrazando mi Guatemala (Embracing Guatemala), a nonprofit dedicated to developing the most poverty-stricken areas of the country.

As president of the organization, he has led initiatives focused on reducing childhood malnutrition in rural communities and empowering girls through secondary education. His research for Sanford, he said, helped him understand the links between these two issues.

“I’ve learned that identifying the intersection of issues contributes to the development of integrated strategies rather than isolated solutions,” he said.

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