Reducing Social Imbalance and Greenhouse Gas Emissions while Eliminating Food Deserts
A food system that promotes equitable access to nourishing food and environmental sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Food delivery systems can increase healthy diets, reduce environmental impact, and improve community resilience through elimination of food deserts.
The 2050 food system vision is achieved through a framework for food desert alleviation at the intersection of systems-focused modeling, advanced technology adoption, and human centered policy design.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)
Lead Applicant Organization Type
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Carnegie Mellon’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute brings technology and policy professionals together to significantly improve the quality of life for metropolitan area citizens. CMU also has a collaborative relationship with the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and other government agencies which have previously produced successful outcomes that are already being implemented in additional metro areas. Metro21 will be the primary avenue for connecting with policy makers to ensure the results of this work are disseminated in a way that will provide workable solutions that seek to overcome biases in food access which are based on geography, income, and a community’s racial demographics.
We also have ties with 412 Food Rescue which reduces food waste through transporting and distributing surplus retail food around the Pittsburgh region.
Lastly, we have connections with the City of Pittsburgh and the sustainability team at Giant Eagle, the local grocery store chain.
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Alleghany County is a county in Pennslyvania, which covers 1,930 km^2.
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Game changing visions for the future are often achieved in places that have a wealth of knowledge and innovation. Allegheny County incorporates the greater Pittsburgh region, which is relevant given the interconnected nature of Pittsburgh’s urban food system. Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of innovation and intellectual hubs, and is the most prominent city in Allegheny county. The 2017 Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan recognized the importance of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the food sector. This reduction is also consistent with Pittsburgh’s participation in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative and the Milan Urban Food Pact. Pittsburgh as a city recognizes the importance and challenge of tackling food-related issues at the urban level, leading it to be a great test bed for implementing policies that would increase the level of equitable food access. The Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan addresses several goals related to reducing GHG emissions in the food sector, including promoting sustainable diets, reducing food waste, and supporting local and regional food sources. The work presented in this food vision would expand the current work in the city by places equity at the forefront.
Allegheny County is also governed by a distinct legislative body compared to statistical metropolitan areas and multi-county regions. Using Allegheny County as a test bed for this vision also facilitates data collection. For instance, the Allegheny County Health Department inspects all food establishments in the County. Additionally, the county houses a regional governmental body which is able and willing to implement potential policy proposals focused on the food system. This team is composed of four professors from Carnegie Mellon University, which is housed in Pittsburgh. The reasons above make Allegheny County an ideal location for re-imagining the way we consume, transport, and distribute food in a given region.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Figure 1. Downtown Pittsburgh
Figure 2: Map of Food Deserts around Pittsburgh (USDA 2015)
Imagine that you just arrived at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Walking to baggage claim you notice black and gold shirts in every window, highlighting the immense pride Allegheny County and the greater Pittsburgh region have in their sports teams. From the Steelers logos calling you in the store front displays you know that it will be impossible to get a seat in any bar on Sundays if the game is on.
As the taxi is taking you away from the airport, trees start to pass you by. The country is pretty rural it seems, and your mind drifts to the suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls that exist outside of the city center. You are on the highway but it is quiet. When the speed drops from 65 mph to 50 you realize the traffic ahead indicates you are coming to the Allegheny Mountain tunnel which cuts through the Allegheny Mountain instead of curving around it like the back roads. You hate to think about what traffic must have been like during the region’s golden age between 1870 and 1910. During those 40 years, Pittsburgh’s population rose from 86,076 to 533,905. Back in those days Pittsburgh was producing 60% of the country’s steel. By the 1980’s, many of the region's steel companies had dissolved. While the industry jobs left with automation and job outsourcing, the name “Steel City,” the Steelers, and their die-hard fans stuck around. The ingrained love of their city led the region to survive a massive economic downturn, and put itself on track to attract investment from technology companies such as Uber, Google, and Lyft.
As soon as you exit the tunnel the city opens up before you. You are in the middle of a yellow steel bridge. The Steeler’s stadium is overlooking the water on your left, and six bridges span the Ohio river on your right. Through the windshield of the car the financial district welcomes you.
Pittsburgh is known as the city of bridges and the city of neighborhoods, and was ranked as a top ten “foodie” city in 2019. Steel City’s ranking as a foodie city stems from its unique blend of cuisines due to its prime location between the East and Midwest. While the unique mix of food rose Pittsburgh to the top of the food charts, if you are not careful you may find yourself living in a food desert. Across the county, the number of food deserts and access to fast foods outweighs access to healthy nutritious foods. In addition to the burden of reaching quality food sources, many county residents lack financial resources to afford nutritious food.
While the county has its struggles, their never-give-up attitude keeps the region pushing forward. Many of the residents who leave for college return upon graduation. This keeps the region fresh with new ideas and drive to improve.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Pittsburgh is known as the city of bridges and the city of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own culture, and unique set of challenges. Many of these challenges stem from the food deserts in the county. Here we define a food desert as an area without easy and ready access to healthy, affordable,nutritious, and fresh food. The Hill District, a neighborhood in Allegheny County, was known as the cultural center of black life and jazz in the years leading up to World War I. Despite its cultural and economic vibrancy, the economic decline in the 1950s led to the displacement of 8,000 people, ultimately creating another food desert. In 2013, its food desert status was revoked after Shop’n Save became a source of hot food and groceries for the local community. This accomplishment was short lived when in March 2019, Shop’n Save closed its doors removing the jobs and nutritious food. Currently, there is still no grocery store in the Hill District, meaning that this community has plummeted back to its original food desert status, increasing the social imbalance between different neighborhoods in the County.
In 2020 we have food delivery robots, grocery store delivery services (i.e. AmazonFresh), and restaurant delivery services (i.e. Uber Eats). Even with these services, 20 neighborhoods in Allegheny County are deemed food deserts according to a 2015 report (Allegheny Health Department, 2015). Across the county the number of food deserts and access to fast foods outweighs access to healthy nutritious foods. In 2010, 37% of county residents stated that there was not a large selection of fresh fruits and vegetables located in their neighborhoods. At the opposite end of the spectrum,57% of residents stated that there was plentiful access to purchase fast foods.In addition to the burden of reaching quality food sources, many county residents lack financial resources to afford nutritious food. Resource scarcity has led to health issues, with 62% of residents between 18 to 64 years old being declared as obese or overweight (Allegheny Health Department, 2015).
What will continue to happen in 2050 if food delivery services remain too expensive to benefit the most vulnerable members of society? We need polices in place to ensure that strategies and technologies are used to improve the economics of food delivery systems and improve people’s diets. While putting policies in place to reduce the social imbalance produced by sporadic access to food, there is the added challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). GHGs are emitted at every stage (production, transportation, disposal) of the food system. Anytime food is transported, additional GHGs are generated by the vehicles moving the food. Much of the food within the system must be stored under refrigeration, requiring electric energy that also results in GHG production. By 2050 electric vehicles combined with renewable electricity could eliminate the GHGs associated transporting and storing food.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
We believe everyone deserves to be able to eat and feed their families with high quality food. Depending on where you live in a region, you may have more or less access to high quality food. As a part of reaching our vision, our team will create a suite of tools that allow policy makers to (1) determine the needed technological and system investments in food delivery systems and large scale grocery stores, (2) understand the current diets of Allegheny County residents and how this relates to proximity to food distribution centers, and (3) craft lasting policies through human centered design.
The first step towards solving a challenge is understanding the problem and visualizing different solutions. One of the final outcomes of this work will be a publicly available mapping tool that details how food access and diets varies around the region. This tool will be community rooted and capture barriers to food access through a survey. Our tool will provide a graphical representation of food access to help policy makers better understand which regions need the greatest investments through uncovering how time and distance to reach quality food sources vary around the county. Finally we will explore how emerging trends in transportation and changes in food diets could impact emissions associated with food transportation and consumption.
Following this we will help policy makers prioritize different investment options based on projected number of people affected, cost, environmental benefits, and distributional equality. The different strategies that will be included in this mathematical framework will be diet changes, food delivery services, and traditional grocery store investments. Our ultimate goal is to inspire and establish policies that lead to universal access to nutritious food by 2050.
The work we start as a part of our vision will provide the tools needed to assist other regions by developing a general methodology in the context of a case study, requiring the level of detail that policies need. The Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan includes key environmental goals related to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the food sector, including promoting sustainable diets, reducing food waste, and supporting local and regional food sources. Our tools will help craft policies to redirect investments toward more equitable food distribution policies. We will create a framework that helps policy makers simultaneously plan for reducing the social imbalance caused by food insecurity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food system. Our work will assist these decision makers in anticipating the impact of possible policies on access to food, and its associated impact on GHG emissions in the region.
The methodology and results from this study could be applied to other regions as well.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Pittsburgh is a city centered around food and cultural diversity.Our game changing vision for the food system is to have universal access to healthy food that will not be subject to the street you live on, and grocery store closings. Our 2050 food system is not limited by the number of grocery stores residents have in a 1-mile radius of their home. Achieving universal access to healthy food is accomplished through community rooted policies, and capitalizing on links between different service systems. The 2050 food system is linked with the transportation system to provide residents with the power to choose where food is sourced, improve their diets, and preserve the foodie culture of the region. Our vision preserves culture through eliminating food deserts and increasing livability of the region.
Accomplishing our vision will illuminate people’s perceptions of food deserts within the Pittsburgh region and provide a framework for creating lasting policies that eliminate these deserts. Food is at the heart of social imbalance due to links between health, environment, and the culture of a community. In 2050 the health and livability of communities will drastically increase by lessening the environmental burden of the food transportation system. Autonomous electric vehicle food delivery will reduce the economic and time burden people spend getting food, while providing equitable access to a variety of grocery stores. Increasing use of grocery delivery systems will make diets less susceptible to grocery store closings increasing community resilience.
Current policies need to use human centered design to place equity and the community at the forefront of investment decisions. Our work provides away for communities to be a part of the food transition, and develops a framework for policy makers to evaluate different food system investment options based on the number of impacted people, environmental benefits, and cost of implementation.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Figure 1: Overall Food System Vision. The 2050 food system vision is achieved through a framework for food desert alleviation at the intersection of systems-focused modeling, advanced technology adoption, and human centered policy design.
Figure 2:Community rooted food desert perception tool that visualizes food quality perceptions. This tool will provide the basis for community centered polices, and inspire transformational policies through visualizing how the residents perceive their food deserts.
You are looking at Pittsburgh the heart of Allegheny County.
The vision is simple: In 2050 we will have a food system that creates equitable and fair access to high quality food and nutritious diets, and has a low environmental footprint. According to the United Nations (UN), in 2018, 55% of the world’s population lived in urban environments, with that number projected to rise to 68% by 2050. Food is a basic need that affects the health of every member of society. In 2050 we believe Allegheny County could achieve goal 2 (zero hunger and food insecurity) and goal 3 (good health) of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda by creating community rooted polices, and adopting technological solutions which promote equitable access to food.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert in urban settings as an area that is 1 mile or more from food options. Under the USDA definition, it is estimated that in the USA 23 million people live in a food desert, with a disproportionate number of affected people having low income. If not properly planned improper distribution of food resources will worsen social imbalance. In our vision (Figure 1), cities make unbiased food investment decisions that lead to a greater number of communities having access to nutritious food and well-rounded diets.
Additionally, the food system is a major contributor of GHG emissions, producing between 19-29% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Vermuelen et al., 2012). In 2050 the environmental impacts of food shopping should be lessened by reducing the number of car trips people need to take to the grocery store, and adopting new technologies (such as autonomous food delivery robots) to increase access to healthy food options.
Overcoming Challenges through Human Centered Design and Links Between the Food and Transportation Systems: In 2050 access to food will not be limited by the grocery stores in your area. Traditionally grocery store locations determined the level of access residents had to quality food. By 2050 regions can shift this paradigm through crafting environmentally and socially conscious policies designed to utilize technologies in a way that reduces time residents spend gathering food. Many of the GHG emissions associated with the food system come from the transportation and distribution of food. By utilizing autonomous, shared, and/or electric food delivery systems the region can reduce its carbon footprint, and increase access to grocery stores without having to invest resources in building another location. For example, in 2013 the grocery store that was built in the Hill District, a community located in the city of Pittsburgh, was temporarily able to alleviate one food desert. In 2050 ground delivery robots and autonomous vehicles could alleviate all 20 of the food deserts in the Allegheny County region. The 2050 food system is not limited by the number of grocery stores residents have in a 1-mile radius of their home. The 2050 food system is linked with the transportation system to provide residents with the power to choose where food is sourced, improve their diets by having groceries delivered to their door, and preserve the foodie culture of the region.
Community Roots and Systems Focus to Sustain Economic Viability: Our community rooted work promotes a more equitable future for cities in two key ways. First, we address the barriers to economic mobility and food access by developing a community centered food desert perceptions mapping tool. The perception tool will incorporate data on how residents perceive their food deserts and what they identify as the key issues. This will provide policy makers with pathways to science-based solutions for contextualizing, understanding, and alleviating structural and historic barriers to mobility as they relate to quality food access. Second, simultaneously planning for equitable redistribution of high-quality food and reducing GHG emissions associated with food transportation will promote environmental health.
Vision Aim 1: Identify Food Access and Healthy Diet Barriers. The research supporting our vision will first focus on identifying and illuminating barriers to nutritious food access through creating an open source geospatial model that builds on the existing USDA food desert map by incorporating resident perceptions of food quality at the distribution site (i.e. grocery store, restaurant), time to reach food source, and knowledge of food delivery options. To describe the situation, we will first create a grocery store inventory for the study region. This inventory will include the locations of grocery stores, food quality rating, and an accessibility rating for urban transport. The food quality rating will be predefined by the researchers based on the level of fresh food and price range for basic necessities. The accessibility rating will be based on the mode of transportation required to reach food sources (i.e. along a bus route, etc.).
Vision Aim 2: Preserve Culture and Improved Diets Through Community Rooted Policies. Our second goal focuses on highlighting the voices of (a) residents in the area through distribution of a survey to gauge how residents perceive their level of access to quality food, and (b) engaging stakeholders (City of Pittsburgh, Giant Eagle, etc.) to create policies that promote increased access to nutritious food and healthier diets. While the USDA has an online food desert map locator tool that offers an overview of food desert locations, their tool does not account for other challenges of access such as: (1) percentage of income and time spent on food and other services (i.e. medicine), (2) main sources of food by region (e.g., grocery and convenience stores, restaurants), (3) knowledge and use of online grocery delivery services, (4) links between food and culture of the community, and (5) diet of the household and barriers to healthier diets. The points (1) – (5) will be captured using a survey, and integrated into a mapping tool, shown in Figure 2.
The map (Figure 2) will overlay the information collected from the survey with the USDA food desert map, and a grocery store inventory of Pittsburgh. This will provide a method for distributing community perceptions of their food access and resources to policy-makers in a tractable way. By integrating information from these residents into our vision, we will increase our transformative potential with technology and community-based policies around equitable food access.
Vision Aim 3: Systems Approach to Reducing Environmental Impact and Inspiring Policy Changes. Our final research aim is to quantify the CO2 emissions associated with the food distribution system in the Pittsburgh region. Completion of this work will create a systems-focused framework for reducing the environmental impacts associated with food transportation and consumption. The food items we will focus on include animal (beef, fish, poultry, eggs) and non-animal products (fruits, vegetables, legumes). Here we will focus on the transportation of these items, distribution of these items to the retail and wholesale sectors, and final consumption of food by consumers in either the food services or residential sector. The emissions associated with different modes of transportation will be sourced from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, and the Environmental Defense Fund. We will help policy makers design better systems in 2050 through mathematical decision analysis models which rank different policy investment options based on cost, number of people impacted, and GHG reduction potential. Options include investments in local grocery store delivery services (i.e. Instacart and Amazon Fresh), autonomous food delivery robots, and prepackaged meal kits (i.e. Blue Apron).
This work aims to inspire transformations at a grand scale through highlighting the collective responsibility of cities to make sure that all of their citizens have access to quality food and can feed their families. The success of this work will be measured by the number of participants who participate in the survey, across a range of demographics (e.g., income and age) and neighborhoods relative to the general population, and willingness of stakeholders to engage with the team. This research will unveil barriers to emerging online and local food delivery services, and how we can begin to incorporate the perspective of low-income individuals into a more technologically advanced future.
Inspiring Lasting Change and Policy Shifts: The final outcome of this work with be a publicly available mapping tool that details how food access varies by region, highlights the voices of communities that are the most impacted by lack of quality food options, and describes how emerging trends in transportation could impact emissions associated with food transportation and consumption. This map will be the first step in promoting healthy diets, reducing environmental impact of the food system, and creating community rooted policies that are informed with systems thinking. Our ultimate goal is to inspire and establish policies that lead to universal access to nutritious food by 2050. In the future autonomous vehicles and ground delivery robots will provide universal access to healthy foods thus eliminating the 20 food deserts of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
In summary our work takes an unconventional approach to breaking down the barriers for economic mobility by developing a framework for food desert alleviation at the intersection of technology, systems-focused modeling, and human centered policy design. We will achieve universal access to nutritious food by capitalizing on the linkages between the food and transportation systems. Food delivery systems will make diets less susceptible to grocery store closings and increase community resilience. In 2050 people’s diets will not be based on where they live.
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