The Future of Food: Building Resilient Food Systems (Introduction)


My name is Alex Firestine, and I’m a rising sophomore from Montgomery County, Maryland, which is about half an hour outside of Washington D.C. I’m pursuing a double degree in Finance and Political Science, with a minor in Economics and two certificates: one in Leadership & Ethics and the other in Business Analytics. My interest in the unique interdisciplinary nature of this academic plan stems from my desire to leverage successful business models and strategic planning maximize political efficiency and thus produce greater social impact. I have a passion for social impact research, and in the past I led a project to develop a comprehensive community engagement model to combat youth gang recruitment in my community. This introduced the necessity of fiscal awareness in policy implementation, as policy with significant social benefit is as feasible as the financial model is strong. For finance specifically, my interest in this subject area is derived from an unconventional engagement that I’ve been involved with for the past five years. I run a small business that connects clients with exclusive, high-end clothing and shoes. This business utilizes a pre-order system to establish a selective client list, allowing for maximum upfront cash flow and continuous rapport development with clients. These clients, located around the world, pay a slight premium for exclusive merchandise that my company acquires, authenticates, and securely distributes. Over the course of five years, I’ve met and transacted with hundreds of amazing people, which has provided a truly rewarding experience. This business experience, combined with my background in social impact research, sparked my interest in the intersection of finance and policy. 

Project focus

The focus of this project is on food insecurity, broadly defined as a lack of access to sustainable food options, which is a major issue faced by communities across the US and around the world. Food insecurity is an extremely complex issue, and making it difficult to holistically analyze a particular region due to the sheer multitude of possible influential factors. Different regions can face both different types and varying severity of food insecurity, hindering the effectiveness of comparative analysis. However, in 2011, current honors college Dean Audrey Murrell and Professor Ray Jones led a project in collaboration with the Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics that developed and tested the Food Abundance Index (FAI). The FAI establishes five parameters by which regional food insecurity can be measured, and assesses these parameters via a normalized points system and scorecard. This project uses the parameters from the FAI as the foundation for the development of a data collection tool to measure regional food insecurity. 

In collaboration with the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Food21, which focuses on developing data driven solutions both supply-side and demand oriented food issues, this project seeks to create and implement a tool that uses modern data to measure food insecurity. Under the faculty mentorship of Dean Audrey Murrell and Professor Ray Jones, I am working closely with Sam Rose, Director of Operations for Food21’s Center for Data Analytics, to develop and effectively pilot test this tool. With pilot testing set to begin in June, the tool is nearing the final stages of pilot ready development. The new FAI tool consists of three main components: a warehouse for external data, a survey for qualitative data, and the original FAI scorecard methodology. These three aspects culminate into an interactive mapping interface. The  warehouse consists of broad regional data obtained from external sources like the national census and regional data centers. This external data is then correlated in the mapping interface with survey data collected by respondents in the region. Both the warehouse and the survey are built around the five main parameters established in the food abundance index. The original FAI scorecard is also virtually incorporated into the tool. We are working to automate the completion of the original scorecard to produce a FAI score based on data imported via external databases and the survey, in addition to mechanisms for traditional instore data collection. 

“Nothing Scarier Than Hungry People”

The positive social implications of this tool are evident, as this tool can provide valuable information to a diverse cohort of stakeholders. Lawmakers can use this tool to develop targeted food policy that can remedy infrastructure issues or other public sector problems that may lead to food insecurity. Nonprofits and community food provision organizations can use the tool to maximize the efficiency in their distribution chain by identifying areas that are most at risk. Even for community members, this tool can provide valuable insight into the food climate of a particular region. Community members can determine the most popular food outlets in terms of dimensions like produce availability and overall affordability. Especially in this unique global situation, the need for resilient food systems is evident, with millions unemployed and a surge in demand for community based food provision. This non-invasive data collection will paint an excellent picture of each region’s food strengths and weaknesses, acting as the foundation for intervention in high risk areas. Using this data, collaborative efforts can be established to address food insecurity issues, which have become more severe amidst the pandemic. As mentioned in my first Board of Directors meeting with Food21, “there is nothing scarier than hungry people.”

“Triple Bottom Line” Lifestyle

During my first year at the University of Pittsburgh, I experienced significant personal, academic, and professional growth and development. This change was incited by the diverse engagements I participated in, from studying abroad to being an executive board member for multiple student organizations. However, I began this research project for the summer at the beginning of my spring semester. Over the course of the semester, I made breakthroughs and encountered challenges as we began developing the early stages of this tool. One valuable insight I gained from that research was the necessity of communication. Communication with my research mentors, my partners at Food21, and other external resources allowed me to effectively complete a needs assessment and overcome any challenges I encountered. The world is extremely unpredictable, and no amount of strategic planning can account for every possible scenario, and thus communication is necessary to mitigate devastation caused by unanticipated events. Working in this highly collaborative climate has fostered my desire to pursue a career in consulting, where communication and collaboration is necessary to complete the desired goals. I intend to leverage my academic experience in financial modeling, predictive analytics, and ethics to help private sector firms become more socially responsible while maintaining a profit, and to help public sector firms become more efficient, allowing for greater social impact. I am passionate about corporate social responsibility, and “triple bottom line” focus on society, the environment, and financial sustainability. 

In a broad sense, the culmination of my specific personal, professional, and academic goals is to maintain a “triple bottom line” lifestyle. For me, social impact is necessary, as it assigns meaning to the work I do, and this aspect of the desired lifestyle is arguably most important. Financial and environmental sustainability are also important to me, as they both provide longevity for myself and mankind as a whole, respectively. This summer research helps me work toward this “triple bottom line” lifestyle. The positive community impact this tool will have is extremely evident, addressing an issue that’s more severe amidst the pandemic. The fellowship program provides financial support over the summer for this work, and the tool itself is entirely virtual, posing no negative externalities on the environment. In addition, this tool could assist with food waste reduction and more efficient budget allocation toward various food-related government sponsored programs. As a result, this project not only supports my “triple bottom line” lifestyle, but also incorporates all three aspects within its scope of influence. I am extremely excited to continue working on this FAI tool this summer, and I cannot wait to see the outcome! I am also extremely grateful for this opportunity and I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me and this research thus far. Through collaboration, research, and effective communication, together we can lay the foundation for resilient food systems.

Leave a Reply