Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NMSU researchers study food insecurity amid COVID-19

LAS CRUCES — It’s been two years since the coronavirus pandemic hit, transforming millions of lives across the country. For many people, one of the persistent effects is the lack of reliable daily access to food. A group of researchers from New Mexico State University has teamed up to gather key data and discover factors that have led to food insecurity amid COVID-19, while developing comprehensive recovery strategies for businesses in the future.

NMSU faculty members Donovan Fuqua, Barry Brewer, Victor Pimentel and Faruk Arslan at the College of Business combine expertise in logistics, management, supply chain and transportation. The group began this project about a year ago after seeing the numerous challenges that COVID-19 has brought — particularly access to food. The work is part of the newly created Center for Supply Chain Entrepreneurship led by Brewer and Carlo Mora.

“When COVID started, we thought, ‘What were some of the impacts and characteristics that caused some of the food insecurity?’ Everyone realized that sometimes they went to the grocery shelf and things were missing. Different things that we used to just pull off the shelves and they’re just not there,” said Fuqua, assistant professor of information systems.

To uncover some of these causes, the group first looked for various companies in the Borderland to work with and collect data.

“We asked a major national food manufacturer for access to all of their data, and they were extremely helpful,” Fuqua said. “They gave us all of their data from the Midwest, so about 12 different states. We pushed their wholesale data from fulfillment and distribution centers to wholesale locations to understand the flow of goods and services of groceries entering communities.”

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Fuqua explained that he and his colleagues did a lot of deep learning analysis of the data to try to understand what kind of traits triggered the rise in food shortages. This includes looking at monthly unemployment rates, population demographics, ethnicity, age and more. They also differentiated the types and costs of foods such as staples, snacks, and nonperishable items. Other data collected came from the US Census Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other sources, which helped the team identify specific information and differences between counties.

The research group began analyzing data from 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic, and then moved on to 2020, which was divided into three phases: the initial lockdowns when COVID was first detected in the United States, and the later easing of COVID restrictions and the reintroduction of restrictions during the second wave.

“The key thing we found was the impact of rising unemployment on fluctuating food demand,” Fuqua said. “Various dominant occupations in the region, whether farming, manufacturing or government, also impacted the turmoil in the food supply. The average age of the population was another key factor in determining food insecurity during COVID.”

By gathering this research, the group was able to quantify the effect that unemployment was having as a major cause of food insecurity across the country. Another finding driving future research is the rise in unemployment claims in late 2020.

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An interesting discovery related to where most of the food was stored.

“We didn’t expect so much to change between rural and urban, and during food insecurity, more items were added to urban shelves than rural shelves, which was also an eye-opener,” Fuqua said.

Researchers found that during COVID-19, companies struggled to meet demand and lost money in some areas. The group began researching solutions for large-scale recovery to identify a decision model that businesses can follow and use to prepare for future food disruptions.

“We are exploring some contingency contract solutions and some decision models to open new areas or close elements prone to uncertainty during COVID,” Fuqua said. “Although we are currently addressing COVID, in the future, as global warming becomes a major factor, we may be able to model future food insecurity based on what has happened during the pandemic.”

As part of the outreach mission at NMSU, Fuqua said it was important for the team, particularly in the College of Business, to partner with local businesses and implement solutions using the latest academic research.

“We see our work with food manufacturers as part of that,” Fuqua added. “One of the major gateways into the US right now is the El Paso/Juarez Corridor for transportation. Transport logistics is an area that also offers research opportunities for other disciplines such as engineering.”

Fuqua says the primary goal of this project is to see student success and guide NMSU graduates to their career fields, whether it be transportation, logistics or supply chain management.

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“We have already placed NMSU graduates through our collaborations,” he said. “As part of our job, we featured them, but of course they did the work to get the job. But we were also able to open up internships for students in other areas.”

The group has already submitted its first research paper to the Journal of Business Logistics and plans to complete two follow-up papers in spring and summer.

Fuqua added that the group is also conducting another major research project in predictive analytics using big data in partnership with manufacturing facilities in Mexico.

Eye on Research is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Tatiana Favela of Marketing and Communications. She can be reached at [email protected]

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