NSF Award # OPP-2207436

Food Assistance Use During Pandemic

Using Mobile Phone Data to Understand the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Food Assistance Use in Alaska: An NSF-Funded Project ($200,000)

Team members: Guangqing Chi, Junjun Yin, and Megan Mucioki

Continents being analyzed
Long-term, active projects

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained domestic and international transportation systems and food supply chains, affecting the cost and availability of food and other essentials. As aspects of the pandemic subside, food prices persistently climb, impacted by sustained supply chain woes, climate disasters, war, and inflation around the world.

The pandemic, and its aftershocks, continue to create new economic stressors and exasperate longstanding economic inequalities, disproportionately affecting vulnerable and low-income communities. Alaska is often described as the last stop in the food chain, almost wholly reliant on lengthy food supply networks from the lower-48 and abroad which results in food prices, even in pre-pandemic times, multiple times higher than any other place in the United States. Increasing food cost and economic stress mirrors a rise in food insecurity and need for household food assistance in Alaska. This project investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on household use of food assistance in urban Alaska over the past three years.

Through an innovative methodology using mobility data and spatial analysis, the team evaluates links between social and demographic variables and food pantry access, identifying food insecurity hotspots where need is greatest. This project will help characterize the pandemic’s impact on food security in Alaska, as well as the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of food insecure residents before and during the pandemic.

The use of digital trace data to study food security provides a novel approach to human centered research, which not only reduces the cost and time needed to conduct surveys but also eliminates the risk and restrictions of in-person research while the pandemic lasts.

The outcome of this project will directly assist local and state governments in evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on functions, uses, and geographic accessibility of the emergency food system in Alaska, with special attention to vulnerable groups and low-income communities.

If successful, the data and methods can be useful for rapidly informing emergency relief practices and policies elsewhere in the U.S. to help identify and assist communities facing food insecurity.