Pandemic Brings New Urgency to Pitt Food Systems Research

People in face masks load food into the trunk of a vehicleFood insecurity has risen to a new prominence as the economic impact of COVID-19 takes its toll. “The entire food supply chain has been disrupted as part of this pandemic,” said Pitt Business Professor Audrey J. Murrell, who is also acting dean of the University Honors College.

Food banks are experiencing unprecedented surges as first-time visitors line up alongside those who regularly rely on these vital community resources to make ends meet. School systems are recognizing the need to continue to feed students, even while classrooms are closed. “Particularly for students in food-insecure areas, those are meals they depend on,” Murrell said.

“The pandemic has cast a spotlight on the brokenness that’s in our food ecosystem. It’s now affecting people who normally have access to healthy food,” she said. “But what people aren’t really talking about is how anyone living in a food desert is really feeling the effects. They already didn’t have access to healthy affordable food.”

Audrey J. MurrellThe heightened attention to food insecurity is bringing a renewed timeliness to the Food Abundance Index (FAI) tool developed by Murrell, former director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership in Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, and her Pitt Business colleague Ray Jones, who now heads the Berg Center.

Their paper, “Measuring Food Insecurity Using the Food Abundance Index: Implications for Economic, Health and Social Well-Being,” appeared this month in the peer-reviewed open-access International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The FAI scorecard assesses a neighborhood’s food insecurity across five key dimensions: access, diversity, quality, density and affordability. The index awards or subtracts points based on criteria such as the absence or presence of a grocery store accessible by public transportation; the availability of organic and local food options; and the ratio of fast-food and convenience stores to grocery stores, produce vendors or organic and local food sources. Based on the point totals, ranging from -5 to 30, neighborhoods can be classified as a food desert (the most severe level of food insecurity); a food gap (at risk of becoming a food desert); a food cluster (with some adequate levels but room for innovation) or a food bounty (strong, accessible, affordable food resources).

Food security as a social responsibility is a key component of Pitt’s Berg Center research as part of its mission to strengthen organizations though ethical leadership.

“Given how critical food security is to the health and economic vitality of local communities, this is an important social concern for businesses,” said Jones, crediting Murrell’s vision and leadership in establishing this focus for the center’s research. “Our projects with community partners challenge students to recognize the complex ways that businesses and other stakeholders in local systems impact one another. Students can see how these issues directly impact communities and individual citizens.“

“This is a tool that can be used by people in communities and by policy makers to diagnose, as well as to drive actions. It’s descriptive, but also prescriptive,” Murrell said.

Murrell and Jones piloted the FAI a decade ago with field testing help from undergraduates in the Berg Center’s Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics, who collected data from nine Pittsburgh neighborhoods to assess the tool’s ability to accurately identify food deserts—areas where access to affordable, healthful food is most precarious. 

And Pitt students are continuing this important work.

Ray JonesAlex Firestine, a rising sophomore in the University Honors College and College of Business Administration is developing a tool to make FAI data collection less labor intensive by drawing upon the wealth of datasets that did not exist when the FAI was first developed. 

“We are in the early stages of launching this as both an interactive webpage and mobile application, allowing for greater accessibility not only for lawmakers but for the community as a whole,” he said. Pilot testing could begin this summer.

“This tool will provide a statistical foundation for governments and other entities to make food policy decisions that impact their particular region,” said Firestine, who is pursuing a double degree in finance and political science.

Said Murrell: “We can pull together regional and consumer data, family spending and health data and information about the food supply chain. We can look at factors like climate, transportation and infrastructure.” The data also can help identify untapped resources and opportunities for investing where there is need, she added.

Pitt Honors students also are engaging with faculty as part of the first of the University Honors College’s cross-disciplinary scholar communities, focused on food ecosystems. In partnership with the nonprofit Food21, where Murrell is board chair, this scholar community is working to advance the resilience and economic impact of the region’s local food systems.

“This is both exciting and necessary,” Murrell said. “It is what the University and the University Honors College do very well—we leverage the research, knowledge and expertise and the heart of the people in the Pitt community.”

The pandemic has heightened the urgency. “Especially right now, as we are trying to address the issues, the issue of the disruption of food will continue,” she said. 

“We need to be rethinking food policy on a local and national level. I’m hopeful this will be one of the conversations as we move from pandemic response into recovery.”