Team:FSU/Human Practices

Integrated Human Practices

Understanding the Problem

The United States of America is home to nearly 333 million people. A majority of the households within the United States are food secure and financially afloat. However, about ten percent of households as of 2019, about 35 million people, were experiencing food insecurity; an all time low for the United States [1]. When the COVID-19 pandemic took full effect in the US, leading to an economic downturn and many lost jobs, food insecurity spiked leading to 45 million people with 15 million of that number being children experiencing food insecurity [2].

Food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life [3] and affects 1 in 9 individuals [4]. Food insecurity is an issue that is influenced by multiple factors including environmental, socioeconomic (income/employment), race, and disabilities. The largest contributing factor to food insecurity is limited financial resources. Food insecurity rates spiked from an all-time low due to an economic downturn from COVID-19. When the virus began to spread across the United States, an economic recession took place because many businesses closed their doors in order to stop the spread and the government issued stay-at-home mandates. From this, millions of Americans became unemployed and because of limited financial resources, there was a lack of access to sufficient food. For those who were already experiencing food insecurity, it became more severe and they faced greater hardship.

Leon County is home to a population of 297,432 people, and is among Florida’s 10 most food insecure counties. About 68,000 people in Leon County are food insecure, 16,000 of that being children. It is estimated that one in three children in Leon County struggle to find their next meal; whether it is nutritious or not [5]. The number of children able to get meals worsened during the beginning of the pandemic, because those who were getting 1-2 meals a day at Title 1 schools, suddenly weren’t getting the food they needed anymore because of schools closing.

The FSU iGEM team is a group of undergraduate students who call Tallahassee, Florida home. It is where we study, learn, and excel in our degree programs. However, both inside and outside of our campus community, food insecurity is affecting those surrounding us in harmful ways. Five percent of college graduates are food insecure [6]. Within the surrounding neighborhoods, food insecurity hits populations hard as they have a statistically lower income and are more distanced from a grocery store or healthy food option. These areas are classified as food deserts and many students, classmates, and professors live in these areas and experience food insecurity. Food deserts are communities where residents have very limited access to healthy and affordable foods [7]. Where we live, surrounding parts of Tallahassee are home to food deserts, and many students who live in this area report having few options for healthy, nutritious food. The main eating option is fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that do not provide the same level of food as grocery stores in higher-income areas. (See map of food deserts in Tallahassee [8])

Food Deserts in Tallahassee-Leon County Area

For the Tallahassee residents that are food insecure, the ability to obtain nutritious food became more difficult during the pandemic. Many people in Tallahassee and the larger Big Bend area had to turn to food banks and local pantries and enroll in government-funded food supplemental benefits. Resources were limited once again due to the pandemic. The largest local community garden run by Florida A&M University closed its gates due to renovations and many farmer’s markets lessened their meeting times and dates or stopped gathering altogether. This meant that anyone who previously used these cheaper sources of food was left wondering where they were going to get their next meal.

Because this problem hits so close to home, it’s in our backyard and it’s happening to fellow classmates and students; we believe ignoring the issue would be a great disservice to our campus and community. When the resources are thinner than they ever were before, we couldn’t go without attempting to solve it.

COVID-19 Impact on Food Insecurity [9]

Exploring Food Insecurity

It was difficult to discern what exactly could be done in order to curb food insecurity within our community. There are so many different routes to take and synthetic biology gives us so many options. We decided to consult local stakeholders who work directly with the food insecure. These included food distributors, food pantries, and those serving Tallahassee’s homeless.

Second Harvest of the Big Bend

Second Harvest is a member of the Feeding America network, distributing food across the 11-county Big Bend area of North Florida. They are the largest food bank in our area and their main mission is the acquisition, storage, and distribution of donated and purchased food and grocery items [10]. Our engagement with them in early January provided us with further inspiration into finding a solution for food insecurity and a deeper understanding of who it affects and why. Second Harvest communicated with us the importance of having well-balanced meals and having access to healthy and nutritious food, which most food insecure people do not have access to.

Second Harvest conveyed many problems that are seen not only within their warehouses, but in other, smaller food pantries as well. There simply isn’t enough space for fresh produce. What we discovered was that when fresh produce is donated, it is given away to the next customer to walk through the door. There isn’t enough refrigeration to keep produce fresh, it can’t be saved for longer periods of time, and there isn't nearly enough donated to ensure that more people get healthy food. A majority of the time when groceries such as leafy greens or milk is donated, it is on the verge of spoiling or has to be used immediately. Half of the time, it is thrown away because it cannot be stored or kept fresh, or no one is available to take it home as soon as it comes in. The terribly short expiration of fresh foods and the necessity for refrigeration leaves food pantries opting to take and distribute shelf-stable goods, such as pantry staples (rice, beans, potatoes, etc), canned goods and packaged goods; foods that are commonly high in sodium and carbohydrates and lack crucial nutrients.

Holistic Service Community Event with Second Harvest

This further inspired us to look into projects that would preserve the food donated; rather than revamping the way food is delivered of transported, which can cause damage and create food waste, creating a new superfood, which would create more problems than we begin with, or going straight to the source and interfering with the way food is grown or collected.

"Some kind of way to preserve or extend the shelf life of produce is important” -Monique Van Pelt, CEO of Second Harvest of the Big Bend "

People Oriented Attitude

With the information collected from interviews with Second Harvest and their team, we determined that the most practical way to design something to combat food insecurity would have to be one that serves the people of our community. Our science is oriented to serve the good of the people, but a human-centered design is so much more than simply reaching out to our stakeholders. It’s discovering the best possible way to serve our community in unprecedented times. In order to develop a proper solution, we continued to reach out to those who see food insecurity first hand, as their experience has the largest impact on our design. Our interviews were oriented around the question: how could we engage the best with our community and outreach in order to incorporate their values and struggles with our solution? We called this our People Oriented Attitude. We wanted to put those that have a direct impact first on our priority.

By opening further conversations with those who see the impact of food insecurity first-hand, we were able to be greatly informed on how to frame a solution for the problem at hand. We were taught the difficulties of food insecurity, how many who experience it are homeless, powerless, and deeply in poverty in such a way that finding something nutritious to eat is the most difficult task. These conversations opened our eyes to how we were able to create an impact on local food insecurity, especially with how we listened to the issues at hand and implemented their thoughts into our human-centered design.

City Walk Urban Mission

charity City Walk Urban Mission is a faith-based organization serving those in need for shelter and a warm meal. Their main focus is to help those experiencing homelessness and to help take charge and turn their lives around. Their shelter houses about 80+ a night and all are provided with a warm meal before bed. Their mission statement and food service caught our attention. Speaking with them, we learned how they have a small food pantry mainly composed of donations from locals, and that everything provided is used to cook meals for those hungry. The food manager at City Walk talked with us about how their pantry needs and meal preparations can go out the window as soon as a new donation comes in because there isn't enough to refrigerate or freeze what is dominated, it has to be used as soon as possible.

“Depending on our shipment or delivery, that's where we have to be adjustable because that food needs to be consumed as soon as possible or it goes to waste.”- Ashley, Food Manager, City Walk Urban Mission

Food Spoilage at City Walk

She continued on further to show us her limited fridge and freezer space, and how she was cooking donated spinach that night for dinner because it was going to spoil the next day. Discussing our potential design ideas, Ashley talked about how she was currently growing many types of vegetables around the church property because there are sometimes months where they don’t receive a big enough donation of fresh produce, or when it is actually donated it is already spoiled. She emphasized a need for something to keep both the donated and grown produce fresher longer because she didn't have any available freezer space, it was being taken up by meats that were hard to come by.

Good News Outreach

charity Good News Outreach (GNO) is a faith-based organization dedicated to providing services to those who might not otherwise receive them [11]. This includes opening their doors as a local food pantry for those in need. Their programs include meal delivery services for seniors and an open pantry from Wednesday to Thursday. Speaking with them, we learned the types of food they get donations of and how many people they reach out to in our area. Their main concern was getting enough available food to the seniors who do not have access to it in our surrounding area. About 20% of the state of Florida is seniors, and 8% of that senior population experiences food insecurity. For senior communities, obtaining food for nutritious meals is a difficult feat, one that is inhibited by the simple fact that they are aging.

Seniors are more likely to develop health problems and disabilities as they age which can make traveling to stores, carrying groceries, and cooking meals far more difficult. Good News Outreach and Feeding America also state that a majority of seniors that are renters experience food insecurity at a higher rate than those that are homeowners, and that those who rent have more of a financial burden and are sometimes forced to choose between food and rent [12].

Because of this, Good News Outreach is striving to provide as much food as is donated to elderly communities and those in need. Each month they prepare around 500 bags of food in order to be delivered to those who are elderly or disabled. These bags are packed full with low sodium, easy-to-digest foods that allow for seniors to make easy meals out of. When GNO receives a decent amount of funds, they purchase electric can openers for the elderly due to health problems such as arthritis.

COVID-19 destroyed the pantries’ stable donation numbers, as more clients were out of work and children were out of school.

"COVID blasted our numbers, we saw an increase in pantry bags distributed from 535 in March to 1210 in April,” the pandemic created a significant increase in food demand, and it has remained high to this day as the pandemic remains." -Rebecca Howard, Director of Operations

These numbers are consistent with those who are experiencing food insecurity, as a majority of households experienced joblessness and less income leading to more visits to the open food pantries. Discussing food donations with Rebecca Howard, the director of Operations of Good News Outreach, she expressed a need for something to preserve the food longer. She explained to us that the only time food is thrown out is if it is expired or damaged by the time it is donated to their pantry. Other than that, they hand out as much food as possible.

Because of our in depth conversations with our stakeholders, we were able to create values that we were determined to prioritize within this project. While each stakeholder expressed their own unique concerns, there were a few common denominators that were held in the utmost of importance between all of our stakeholders. Everyone was committed to the idea of helping lessen the impacts of food insecurity in our surrounding community, and we made it our ultimate goal to find a solution to do just that.

Ideation and Design

Finding the Right Path

Throughout the ideation and design processes of our solution towards food insecurity, we made the foundation of our design based on critical feedback from our stakeholders, which included multiple food banks, pantries, and experts to ensure our solution was built off of their advice and aligned with our stakeholder values. For our project we aimed to create and provide a synthetic biological solution of which could help alleviate the pressures of food insecurity within our community.

As a team, our first discussion included the logistics and restrictions when it comes to working with food, and examined whether it would be a feasible choice for our project. To guide our project we explored various avenues of how food could be preserved, changed, or transported in order for more people to obtain healthy, nutritious foods for longer periods of time. This was structured through both interviews with our stakeholders, literature reviews, and contacting external researchers and farmers to see if they could share their two cents; and to see where we could implement ourselves in a large food pipeline.

Working at the source of food, with farmers in our area, seemed like a great idea until further conversations with stakeholders who actually received produce revealed that starting at the source of produce wouldn’t work, as the food goes through many hands before it reaches a food bank or pantry. That means as soon as the produce is harvested, it doesn't go directly to a food pantry. It goes to grocers, the USDA, and wholesale buyers, where it then goes to consumers and shoppers, and if there is any left over, it is donated to the food pantry.

Working with food directly proposed many boundaries, but our stakeholders advised against genetically engineering foods, a proposal we had in order to make foods more nutritious and packed with more vitamins, proteins, and anything else to create a more balanced plate. We were told many people are still wary of their food being messed with in laboratory settings and to look for something along the lines of preservation. That made us question: preservation as in refrigeration?

Volunteering at GoodNews Outreach

Creating our own kind of refrigeration sounded very interesting, and it wasn't an idea that had come to us before. Of course, we weren’t mechanical or electrical engineers, but we could try! This is where our stakeholders stepped in once more and explained that they don’t have the space or storage area for more refrigerators; it just wasn’t feasible. Even if our special refrigerators went out to households and not food pantries, Monique Van Pelt brought up the thought that many who are food insecure don’t even have working plumbing half of the time, let alone electricity. This is seen especially around seasonal changes as we discovered that food insecurity has seasons. In states where the cold and hot seasons are extreme, those that are food insecure sometimes have to make a choice between heating/cooling or putting a meal out for their family. This meant that the implementation of even a household fridge would be a financial burden because of electricity costs and possible repairs.

So we relooked into preservation. Plastic was an option used by many to keep items a little fresher than normal, but could we improve upon it? Many plastics are creating a huge problem in our environment. Maybe we could make it biodegradable? A majority of our stakeholders experience food spoilage and molding problems when food is donated too late. Maybe it could have fantastic antifungal/microbial properties? We brought this idea up to several stakeholders and the feedback was glowing. Rebecca Howard from Good News Outreach praised the idea of “anything that can make the produce last longer so that we can get it out to our seniors on the weekends”. So we took the idea and ran with it to our Design and Create teams in order to figure out a game plan of how we can create such a plastic, or manipulate the properties of other preservative options.

Synthetic Biology as a Solution

With these back and forth conversations, our Design Lead Chase dove into plastics research. He focused on finding a way to source natural material and manipulate it into a protective film for produce. His best finding was a substance called Chitin. Chitin has the characteristics to maintain a set environment and chitosan has the antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Meta analysis of past works involving them, our team found plausible solutions that stakeholders would be interested in a chitosan spray. Because of little lab time available, we thought “what could we do to improve the past sprays?” We clearly didn’t have enough time or resources to bio-engineer our own Chitin-Chitosan Spray, so by purchasing a manufactured spray called Hyshield, we hypothesized that if a vegetable is sprayed with a chitosan spray then its shelf life would be extended by having the produce preserved in it’s own secure environment. No exterior gasses, microbes, or handling would damage it.

The chitosan spray has been combined with many different combinations from thyme or cinnamon oil, but we were curious about what hasn’t been done yet. After research into different antimicrobial oils found in natural plants, the Chokeberry was found. It is a native plant to Florida agriculture and environments and has great characteristics to be a natural preservative. It was antimicrobial, antifungal and high in pectin. We decided to make that one of our independent variables since it hasn’t been tested yet and is a native plant in Tallahassee.

Building and Testing

We purchased tomatoes and green beans from our local Publix, one that sends over donations of nearly expired produce to our local food banks. We washed the vegetables with diluted water and dried them. We sorted the tomatoes into equal four groups, with one being the control, and each group had three tomatoes with sizes small, medium, and large. We randomized the green beans into 24 per group. A big container was divided into three sections and its lid was divided into three sections as well. Labeling the sections control we placed the three tomatoes in the container and laid out the 24 green beans on the lid section. Then we prepared the chitosan solution by measuring out 300 mL of the Hyshield in two different beakers. Then added 3mL cinnamon oil into one of the beakers, and stirred the Hyshield and cinnamon oil solution for 15 minutes.

One at a time from the next group of tomatoes was dipped in just the Hyshield spray for 2 minutes and then placed in the correctly labeled section. Repeat the dipping for the green beans. Then repeat the dipping with the remaining groups with the Hyshield and cinnamon oil solution. Every three days we checked on them and took note of any wrinkling, bruising, and mold growth. We also took photos for a visual comparison, found under our engineering page. We stopped the experiment on day 15.

Proposed Implementation

Integrating Stakeholder Advice

Having deeply ideated and designed a solution that was heavily developed from the advice and insight of our stakeholders and lab experts, expanded from our team values and the values that our community holds, our team stepped forward to the proposed implementation phase. This is the phase of our work that shows our design thinking, that allows for our stakeholders to see what scientific and human practices processes we have done in order to create an impact on our community. The devastating impacts of food insecurity, still worsening because of COVID-19, allow us to create a design that can lead to greater change in this problem.

We wanted our project to check all the boxes and address all the concerns that have been brought to our attention when pitching or proposing our design regarding how we plan to implement our solution into our community. It was key that our team consider all things regarding technical, ethical, and socio-economic concerns. To ensure that a meaningful, dedicated process was taken in order to address these concerns, we utilized a multi-step approach. Our first steps in this process were devoted to solidifying the foundations of our project involving all things design and create. For our lab this had involved working with Chitin and Chitosan. This was a decision made early on through literature searches and conversations about wants with our stakeholders, we ultimately settled on Chitin. This decision was made fairly early on in our project, because we wanted to get the basic design of how we wanted our plastic right the first time so we could improve in any way possible.

This decision complimented our stakeholders wants, needs, and values, by having antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Properties that could help our stakeholders by holding fresh produce or baked goods longer. The steps taken after deciding our material will expand upon finding or creating a sustainable, scalable source of Chitin, as it’s creation process is often hazardous and expensive. This brings us another step closer to implementation, because as we started to lay out our laboratory processes and design, we started to think about how we can bring this resource to our community. From the beginning we can confidently say that our HP journey was one that led our project from start to finish and it created a deep people-oriented approach. From materials professors, to stakeholders, to food truck owners and local farmers, to people we’ve talked to in our neighborhood, to the conversations that blossomed from our meetings and grew to influence the way our project was developed.

First we reconnected with Second Harvest of the Big Bend. We had created and maintained contact with them since the beginning of our project in order to ensure that our implementation approach would comply with their standards of food packaging and any risk posed with preserving the foods within their storage units. We were informed about the restrictions they had in place that are standardized by the FDA and the USDA, but our implementation should not violate these guidelines if we are not directly modifying the food, genetically or otherwise. This allowed us to take a sigh of relief as our shared values of providing a safety of food, a vital component within our implementation, had been aligned. This also allowed us to reconsider our research and determine that our bio plastic would cause no harm to the environment, not just others, as it is biodegradable.

In connection with Urban Mission City Walk, our team’s focus was greatly steered towards the impacts of food insecurity on our local neighborhoods and how we can create a change in produce preservation with synthetic biology solutions. As such, we were encouraged to look into implementing our solutions in locations that have low income and socio-economic statuses, in order to create an impact within our community. We were also suggested by Monique Van Pelt to initially implement our refrigeration design here on our campus in order to mitigate any negative impacts or possible breakdowns of the design. This was highly important to us because many of our stakeholders placed value on having enough fresh produce to go around to more hungry people in our community. Having the packaging and refrigeration on campus as a test run would go on to alleviate any foreseen risk.

As we neared the end of our project considering how to go about our proposed implementation, we were once again thinking about what Monique Van Pelt taught us and how she encouraged us to think about the possible end-users of our product. Those who will be working directly with the plastic whether it be storing the produce in food banks or users removing the plastic in order to consume the preserved produce.

“Everybody gets meat and baked goods if we can get it, but we don’t have storage. If I get it in on Wednesday, I have to get it out on Wednesday.”- Monique Van Pelt, CEO, Second Harvest of the Big Bend

Evaluating Our Values

Communicating with our stakeholders early on within our project helped us identify and prioritize values we needed to incorporate into our solution. A lot of these values defined our solution in the long run and we made sure to evaluate our project every step of the way so that we were aligned with our stakeholders needs.

Food insecurity is an issue that cannot be resolved overnight. It requires major restructuring of socio-economic values and is an entire social and political effort that calls for major infrastructure change. There are no concrete solutions to food insecurity, and as times are unpredictable with economic downturns and a pandemic, many strategies for helping combat food insecurity are finding themselves at a loss. We believe creating a solution which involves a different scientific approach with synthetic biology, we can contribute a potentially effective way to put a healthier meal on someone's plate.

Our solution uses synthetic biology to engineer a spray that encapsulates produce within its own environment, capable of combating mold, microbes, and fungi, and providing an extended shelf life. While this does not solve the problem of food insecurity, it helps to lessen the impacts of unhealthy diets and provides more nutrients to those who do not have access. This aligns with our stakeholders values.

“If it has a longer shelf life, it gives me more selection from Second Harvest, and I can give more selection to my clients… Some of these people are really tired of canned pork and tuna.”- Rebecca Howard, Director of Operations, GNO

Another value we held close was the ability to make our product financially viable and scalable. We believe it is important in determining whether a solution can be realistically applied to the real world- to our community more importantly- in order to make a positive impact. Current production of chitin and chitosan involve three major steps: demineralization, deproteination, and decolorization. Chitosan requires a fourth step, deacetylation where the acetyl group is removed. These steps are often very expensive, hazardous, and wasteful [13,14].

Furthermore, current chitin supply comes from squid beaks and crab shells, byproducts of the fishing industry. To realistically use chitin on a global scale, a scalable and sustainable source of chitin must be found. We have evaluated many examples of chito-oligomer production and we chose NodC to express and be compatible with prokaryotic hosts in order to develop and produce Chitin.

Chi-Wrapping it Up

We began our Human Practices journey with an exploration into the complex relationship between people and food. Our approach to the issue of food insecurity has been defined by one fact: that our science serves the good of our community. That we can make a small change that can have a cascading effect on those who live around us. Our research and consultations with stakeholders and scientists shaped the way our project was created and how our synthetic biology can interact with people everywhere. These conversations opened doors and molded our project in every way so we can help the good of the people.

Food insecurity affects so many people in our community, we wanted to be able to utilize synthetic biology to provide a safe solution. A solution that can be used by food pantries and food banks and those that are food insecure to ensure that they are getting healthy produce as easily as possible. We encountered disconnects between science and people; one which can be seen as an underlying fear surrounding food and science. Most people don’t want their food to be touched by science, especially when it comes to chemicals. We wanted to take action and close the gap. We implemented an education design that is provided for our stakeholders to use and teach about how our design means no harm, and in no way can change the produce being preserved.

Our people-oriented design has changed the way we connect people and synthetic biology. But it requires a lot of effort. We listened to stakeholders describe their issues with storage and space, and they informed us about how their customers would feel more safe with a wrap instead of a spray. We deeply took this into account and guarded this value because we want our science to reflect the people’s values and we want to express that we listened to their concerns. We have also aimed to communicate our science to children and students at Title 1 schools, passing out and providing our educational brochures, and making sure those who are food insecure know where their best resources are to get a nutritious meal. We have learned the value of actively looking for ways to always open new conversations with people, because you never know what they have to offer.

This year, the FSU iGEM 2021 team had the wonderful pleasure of observing, listening, engaging, and creating in order to bring synthetic biology to a widespread issue. Through our people-oriented design, we have opened many conversations and were taught that amazing designs can be reached when taking an ear to someone new.

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  8. Ver Ploeg, Michele, et al. “Mapping Food Deserts in the United States.” USDA ERS - Data Feature: Mapping Food Deserts in the U.S., United States Department of Agriculture, 1 Dec. 2011,

  9. University of South Florida. “2021 Food Insecurity Report.” Food Insecurity | 2021 E-Insights Report | State of the Region | USF Muma College of Business, University of South Florida,

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