The Third Chapter of my Food Insecurity Research: Surveys and Vacant Lots

Hey everyone! My name is Alex Firestine (he/him) and I’m a junior here at Pitt. I’m triple majoring in Finance, Accounting, and Business Information Systems, with certificates in Leadership & Ethics and Data Analytics. Since my freshman year, I’ve been working on a project to measure regional food insecurity in partnership with a local nonprofit. However, I’ve been a volunteer in the food insecurity space for many years prior, from working with food pantries to hand out food, to home deliveries of recovered food during the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve personally delivered over 10,000 meals to families in need.

My project for this community research fellowship adopts a more data-oriented focus. As mentioned, I’ve worked with Food21, a local nonprofit in the Pittsburgh area dedicated to building resilient food systems, for almost 3 years on a project to build an application to measure regional food insecurity. This application is based on a research study conducted by the Berg Center for Leadership and Ethics here at the University of Pittsburgh called “The Food Abundance Index.” This study measured food insecurity by 5 different dimensions: Access, Affordability, Diversity, Density, and Quality. Each of these dimensions has 3 levels, which correspond to certain characteristics of a community, like having grocery stores or community supported nutrition education. Using modern data and analytics, I’ve worked with Sam Rose, Director of the Food21 Center for Data, Analytics, and Strategy at Food21 to build out many of these dimensions. However, we ran into a crucial issue: Not all of these levels can be measured using purely publicly available data. Some levels of the study involved entering grocery stores and assessing inventory and produce quality. This is currently unfeasible and inefficient, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We sought to address these issues with a Food Abundance survey. This survey asks respondents about the quality and other characteristics of the outlets by which they obtain their food in order to fill the gaps in the publicly available data. For the next year, I’m planning on completing and deploying the survey to begin filling these gaps and achieving a holistic view of food insecurity in different regions in Pittsburgh

In addition, through my involvement with the sustainable food systems course, I’ve become fascinated with the impact potential of community-supported agriculture that repurposes abandoned lots. During my involvement with this course, I had the opportunity to visit many of these farms in the Pittsburgh area. It was insightful to learn about the extent to which these farms can benefit the community. As a supplementary facet of my project, I’ll be completing a valuation assessment of ventures dedicated to cultivating these lots for community, emphasizing the gross revenue and production output attainable for the region if vacant lots were to be cultivated.

My current professional goals are generally undefined, but I have a desire to work in a consulting capacity with governments and nonprofits, particularly focusing on analytics implementation. This project will allow me to leverage my background in analytics to address food insecurity issues in my community alongside a non-profit. From scripting languages to data visualization software, this project touches on a broad range of my data analytics interests and expertise, with the specific focus of creating an impact. This project is similar to the Lots to Love program, and much of the food insecurity research conducted by the City of Pittsburgh. I hope to build upon much of the work that has been completed to get a more detailed view of the unique food insecurity issues our region faces and methods to address them.

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