Reverend Heber Brown III wants people to erase the term “food desert” from their vocabulary. He uses the term “food apartheid.”

He is the pastor of Baltimore’s Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. Food deserts refer to areas devoid of nutritious and affordable food. Food apartheid is a term that takes into account the entire food system as well as race, geography, faith and income. It affects how grocery stores choose locations, what types of foods are made available, and dynamics in fields, kitchens and every point of the food-supply chain. Dollar stores and farmers markets are mainstays near Brown’s congregation. But they don’t nutritionally or financially sound options, he said.

“It’s frustrating when you see what you need, but still can’t get it,” he said.

That’s why he transformed the front yard of the church into a 1,500-square foot garden. The effort has evolved into a network of 14 Baltimore churches offering discounted produce and supporting black farmers.

Emerging technologies in the food system can make a big difference for communities. The National Academies of Sciences recently held a workshop where

speakers discussed how autonomous vehicles, unmanned-aerial vehicles and blockchain technology play a role in improving food access, safety and affordability.

“Combining social innovation with technological innovation will be the future of the food system,” said Nevin Cohen, associate professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health. He also is the research director at the Urban Food Policy Institute.

Brent Heard, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, discussed combining technology with social services. Using autonomous vehicles or unmanned-aerial vehicles to deliver meals to food-assistance recipients could eliminate their need to travel to groceries, he said.

Packaging often is overlooked as it relates to food safety, said Claire Sand of Packaging Technology and Research. Packages that contain antimicrobials or oxygen absorbers can keep microbial activity at bay. That can help extend shelf life and improving safety, she said.

When a food item is recalled, it’s difficult to determine which ingredient is the cause of contamination. That’s where blockchain plays a role, said Dawn Jutla of Peer Ledger, a software company that aims to use the technology in the food supply chain. The use of a digital and encrypted set of transactions may lead to better traceability during a product recall, she said.

Food intersects with a wide range of infrastructures such as energy, water, waste management, transportation and public spaces, said Anu Ramaswami, a professor of civil- and environmental-engineering at Princeton University. While emerging technologies show promise in transforming the food system, they must be deployed responsibly and in ways that respect community values and preferences. Visit for more information.

Sign up for our Weekly Ag newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Stephanie Miceli is a media-relations officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.