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An interdisciplinary team of University of Vermont researchers is using video game technology to inform decision-making around policies to increase access to healthy foods.

The University of Vermont has received nearly $400,000 in support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support an interdisciplinary team’s use of “serious game” technology to test how policies across the food system can better support access to healthy foods.

The two-year grant will support research on the systemic barriers between civic-minded farm businesses and communities with disproportionately low access to fresh, whole foods. The cross-campus partnership will employ serious games — video games which are not for entertainment purposes — that can test how different scenarios might play out in real life.

“Serious games can help us look at responses to simulated conflict and to alternative policies, without confronting people with actual conflict or poor policies. By doing so, we can find ways to build more equitable and just solutions,” said team member Scott Merrill.

The team’s approach involves understanding not only decision-making by farmers and distributors, but also the larger context in which they take place. The games developed will examine how potential policies could create more opportunities for farmers to feed their local and regional communities. Seeing how abstract policies can affect reality on the ground will help identify leverage points for change across the food system.

Led by food anthropologist Amy Trubek, the team includes systems ecologist Scott Merrill, food systems scientist Caitlin Morgan, applied mathematician Eric Clark, and health policy expert Julia Wolfson, a partner at Johns Hopkins University.

“We were able to create this innovative project due to the strong collaborative spirit among faculty and graduate students affiliated with the Food Systems Graduate program,” Trubek said.

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