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Rescuing Abundance: Co-Creating an Inclusive and Resilient Pittsburgh Regional Food System

Rescuing Abundance focuses on leveraging existing assets that co-creates innovative solutions and shared value for people and communities.

Photo of Audrey Murrell
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

University of Pittsburgh

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

University of Pittsburgh Honors College, David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, Food21 of Southwestern PA, University of Pittsburgh Dining Services/Sodexo, Stone Soup Collaborative, Pittsburgh Food and Beverage Network, Hollymead Capital Advisers and Sankofa Real Estate Development Group.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I have lived, worked and engaged with the city of Pittsburgh for over 30 years. As an educator at the University of Pittsburgh and a researcher on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, I have been actively involved within the Pittsburgh community through people, projects and public policy initiatives. Pittsburgh has been labeled as a “renaissance city” and I have both witnessed and been part of the city’s amazing revitalization. However, the city still has to address a host of environmental, social and economic challenges in order to sustain its renaissance. Pittsburgh continues to have significant disparities based on race, gender and income that must be addressed in order for the region to continue its transformation. Issues of food resilience, sustainability and innovation will be a major part of writing the next chapter of our city’s renaissance. A robust food ecosystem will be essential for economic and employment growth within our region. Food will be core to inclusive entrepreneurial and economic development. Food will be important for Pittsburgh to be a city of efficient, innovative sustainable energy. Food will be essential to address health, nutrition and cultural needs for the current and future residents of the region. Food is a $7 billion contributor to the Pittsburgh regional food economy and must be a key driver for sustainable economic growth and its next renaissance. This region has amazing assets such as world-renowned universities, philanthropic organizations, technology incubators, private investors and emerging entrepreneurs. For these reasons, Pittsburgh can serve as a living laboratory for how to leverage food as a driver of transformation that adds value for people, families, communities and economies. The vision of Rescuing Abundance focuses on how to leverage existing assets that co-creates innovative solutions and shared value for people, organizations and communities. The message of this project is that “the waste is over”.

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.

Pittsburgh is the 56th largest city within the United States and is located in the Southwestern part of Pennsylvania.  The city rests at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers and contains 446 bridges.  In decades past, Pittsburgh was home to over 300 steel-related businesses, which is where it gets its nickname as the “Steel City”. The historic domination of steel and other heavy industries led to its economic prosperity but by the end of the 1980's, the industry had declined and a period of economic and community desolation emerged.  Pittsburgh also suffered from negative environmental impact of the heavy steel with challenges to air, water and soil quality and a workforce unprepared for emerging industries. Due in large part to the collaboration between strong educational institutions and a robust health care industry, the “Pittsburgh Renaissance” was born in the 1990's.

Twice voted “America’s most livable city”, Pittsburgh has also been ranked 6th among the top large college cities in America, one of the top 20 U.S. cities to retire, top 20 big cities to live in, one of the best cities for jobs, one of the 25 up-and-coming startup cities and top U.S. destination for good food.  However, Pittsburgh has serious disparities for all women and especially for Black women and girls.  University of Pittsburgh research finds high black maternal mortality rate, lower employment, higher poverty and higher food insecurity for African Americans especially women compared to most major cities in the United States. The city recently created OnePGH as the strategy for Pittsburgh to leverage community assets and create a resilient city of engaged and empowered people, families and communities.  A second renaissance is necessary and feasible in Pittsburgh whose future must be “forged for all”.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


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.

A recent report by the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Sustainability and Resilience documented that 1 in 5 Pittsburgh residents live with food insecurity. Within the city of Pittsburgh, food insecurity is 19.4% higher than the average for the overall U.S. population. Almost half of Pittsburgh’s residents live in a “food desert” as defined by national standards. This means that families must cope with limited access to food sources and often rely on local convenience stores, which are ineffective sources for fresh, local, healthy, affordable and culturally relevant food.  Persistent economic disparities within the Pittsburgh region are another critical challenge that impact regional food systems and negatively impact food access, health and well-being.  Thus, the challenge that must be addressed within the Pittsburgh food system is more than just the availability of grocery stores and other food outlets. 

Pittsburgh faces ongoing health disparities based on income and race, unequal economic opportunities for minority, women and disadvantaged businesses, uneven job growth in diverse communities as discussed within the recent Pittsburgh Equity Indicators Report. This report documents persistent racial, gender and other demographic disparities in key areas such as household income, education, public safety, civic engagement, and health outcomes. Key city and county officials have recently named racism as public health crisis within the Pittsburgh region. In addition, the Pittsburgh region and its history of heavy manufacturing as its primary industry has a legacy of environmental contamination issues that significantly impact regional food systems. The University of Pittsburgh’s Collaboratory for Water Research reports that the history of steel production and other industry has left “dangerous pockets” of water contamination that diminish regional capacity for healthy water resources. Industrial pollutants, sanitation infrastructure, stormwater management are all critical issues that the Pittsburgh region must address to reduce the negative impact on the food system. This includes the need for better and ongoing assessment of water quality and more robust methods to improve regional water quality, which has a significant impact on regional food systems. Similarly, the Clean Air Council reports that Pittsburgh ranks as one of the top counties for air pollution including the 8th worst in the country for soot and the 26th worst in the nation for smog from ground level ozone. Asthma rates for the Pittsburgh region, especially children, exceed the national average due in large part to air pollution.  Pittsburgh-based non-profit organization, 412 Food Rescue cites as a key challenge the 40% of regional food production that is wasted and contributes to ongoing food system inefficiencies and negative environmental impact. Lack of innovation in the regional food systems is another challenge that must be addressed. A recent summit on agriculture technology held in Pittsburgh hosted a conversation to address a key question: how do we build a better food system?

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Pittsburgh is a natural incubator for the use of food as an economic, social, environmental and innovation driver within the region. The historic revitalization in the 1990's provides evidence of regional capacity to innovate and shape its economic future. A recent report by the Brookings Institute entitled, “Capturing the next economy:  Pittsburgh’s rise as a global innovation city” outlines our regional assets.  This report cites the exiting capabilities with the regional based on growing education and healthcare sectors.  Other assets include the strong work ethic and culture of philanthropy. The vision of this project is to bring together existing resources and capabilities to build a collaborative infrastructure focused on using food as the change agent for the region’s next transformation. Few cities have the naturally occurring resources of Pittsburgh to define and execute a regional strategy for economic, health, business, community and individual well-being.  Leveraging food as an asset and a driver of regional transformation will have a positive impact on economic development, environmental sustainability, community well-being, health and wellness, inclusive business and entrepreneurial development and opportunities for the next generations of Pittsburgh residents.  This project starts with the fundamental assumption that any set of solutions must be inclusive, socially responsible, economically feasible and environmentally sustainable.  A key part of this vision is that solutions are co-created and success is defined by shared value.  This means that diverse communities of people, ideas and thought must come together to engage in the development of goals, strategies and efforts toward a more resilient food system.  This effort will not work from the top-down, but must be inclusive in both its goals and its process.  In addition, a key aspect of meeting the challenge for Pittsburgh’s regional food system is that the outcomes must create positive value for all segments and communities.  If disparities continue, then the project is not successful.  Diversity, equity and inclusion are core dimensions for any measure of success as part of this vision. This initiative will bring together thought leaders, university researchers, community partners and the next generation of innovators, educators, business owners and engaged citizens toward solutions to the complex issues facing our regional food system.

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.

Many of our regional food systems are inefficient, outdated, disaggregated, and lack a commitment to equity, innovation and sustainability.  We fail to best utilize the assets, resources and knowledge that is readily at hand.  While mass production provides volume efficiencies, it ignores the needs and values of diverse communities.  Put simply, we must stop wasting resources and reclaim the abundance provided by our food system.  Thus, we must engage people, communities, and institutions in a collective effort toward “Rescuing Abundance”.  This project is both a response to the persistent disparities which waste resources, talents, opportunities, and human potential, and as an invitation for people, organizations, and communities to co-create an inclusive and resilient regional food system. There is extensive documentation of the persistent disparities and challenges facing Pittsburgh’s regional food system. Opportunities and considerable assets exist to reshape and revitalize the Pittsburgh region. Some advocate for technology to drive the new Pittsburgh regional economy, especially within the regionally vibrant software, biotech, healthcare, and sports/entertainment industries. The vision of “Rescuing Abundance” is to cultivate and leverage existing and emerging capabilities within the food system to drive the next Pittsburgh renaissance – a food system that is clean, inclusive, innovative, socially responsible, fruitful, and integrated. The project aims to co-create a resilient food system within Pittsburgh to foster regional transformation of a broad economic, cultural, environmental, and social scope. It is time for human potential, natural resources, innovative ideas, healthy families, diverse communities and economic well-being to be foundational in the design of critical regional food systems. The next chapter within the Pittsburgh region’s history is entitled, “The waste is over”.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Some argue that food is a basic human right. As echoed by the United Nations, Declaration of Human Right “people have a right to freedom from hunger, and everyone has a right to have access to adequate food.” This is because food, which is essential to all our lives, fulfills a basic biological need without which an individual would not survive or maintain their well-being. Some argue that public health and human rights are inextricably linked such that people cannot have rights and dignity if they are unable to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Disparities in access to a basic human right such as food are part of the socially defined process of exclusion that is enabled by persistent disparities and social stratification.

The issue of disparities in food access and its consequences is not simply a theoretical construct. A wide variety of research shows that food insecure people are likely to suffer from severe psychological, physical and social problems. These include hunger, starvation, unhealthy eating and a host of potential negative consequences such as malnutrition, obesity, diabetes and poor physical, cognitive and psychological development among children. The absence or lack of food security represents a troubling social and economic concern which has also been shown to impact economic development within local communities. Clearly, an impoverished or inequitable food system is a crucial social issue based in part on its impact and persistent adverse effects.

However, the issue of food is also core to concerns over diversity, inclusion and social justice. Food insecurity tends to be higher among households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line and among minoritized groups. The incidence of food insecurity among economically and socially disadvantaged groups raises critical concerns about social justice, economic equality and discrimination within the current food system. The inequitable distribution of benefits and burdens and the impact of these benefits and burdens spans all dimensions of social life including household income, economic wealth, food, power, education, shelter, and health care.  This brings to the forefront a number of basic social issues and concerns relevant to food security and inclusive food systems. Clearly, when our food systems are inefficient and inequitable, it produces a wide range of negative consequences that interfere with the basic needs for economic, social, cultural, health and psychological well-being for people, families and communities. Demographic inequalities, social exclusion and potential exploitation occur when structural barriers to food access are allowed to exist and to persist. 

Our present food system models of production, distribution and supply chain management have disproportionately favored affluent communities.  The current food system and prevailing business models do not consider issues related to food access and equal distribution across communities as a necessary dimension that must be part of the decision-making process. Inclusion of minority, women and disadvantaged business is lacking which means inclusive business development is stunted. Our current public and non-profit sectors have traditionally shouldered the responsibility for addressing issues related to hunger and food insecurity. However, emerging business models and perspectives suggest that the private sector, by not providing for the marginalized is missing a whole market of value-demanding consumers.

Increasingly research has shown that private sector involvement and investment is critical to achieve comprehensive food security. Some would argue that it is possible for business to address persistent disparities, reduce negative social stratification and still realize significant profits at the same time by adopting a “shared value approach”. This requires challenging the present assumptions such as who constitutes the consumer base, the strategy of food placement, changing perceptions of food insecure people as lacking customer potential and innovating traditional food production and distribution models. Others would argue that high rates of food insecurity within the U.S. are the result of a fundamental conflict between a competitive market-driven food system and value-based model that place the needs of local communities and global societies at a premium. However, social systems and environments on which we all depend must work in a manner that benefits all people.  Unfortunately, the current state of our food systems and food business practices are often contrary to what one would argue are socially responsible and sustainable business practices. For example, the current global food system consists of large-scale corporations whose strategy can sometimes result in the marginalization of the small-scale producer thus reducing diversity in the number of firms and diversity of business owners involved across the food supply chain. Other food retail practices like marketing unhealthy foods to children and minoritized groups, higher pricing for organic and healthy foods and a deliberate targeting of affluent and suburban consumers over those in low-income neighborhoods are all practices that fail to recognize the interdependence between the health, economics, environment and welfare of communities and the region.

The vision of “Rescuing Abundance” is to co-create an inclusive and resilient Pittsburgh regional food system. Rescuing Abundance means reclaiming the natural, human and collective resources that are being ignored, undervalued or misapplied. Resilient food systems are essential for economic, community and individual well-being. Food can be a catalyst for job growth and economic development, innovation in green technologies, improvements for health and well-being, growth of inclusive business development and the engagement of diverse communities and cultures. However, social stratification persists within our food economy and we must address issues of inequality that have a strong impact on racial and ethnic groups within our society. When access to vital resources is limited due to social barriers, discriminatory practices and economic disparities, the negative effects of social stratification are the end result. Human potential, individual capabilities, economic impact and environmental sustainability are not only impacted - they are wasted. The core of this vision is that “the waste is over”.  "Rescuing Abundance" focuses on reclaiming the natural resources within our local communities in order to enhance shared value and produce a more equitable, inclusive, efficient and sustainable food system. 

 This challenge is particularly significant for the Pittsburgh region. There is extensive documentation of the challenges facing Pittsburgh’s regional food system. There is also a plethora of evidence for the persistent disparities that plague a region on the verge of its next renaissance. Opportunities and considerable assets exist within the region to reshape and revitalize the regional economy. The vision of the “Rescuing Abundance” is to cultivate and leverage existing and emerging capabilities within the food system to be the key driver of the next Pittsburgh’s renaissance – a food system that is clean, inclusive, innovative, socially responsible, fruitful and integrated.  This aim of this project is to co-create a resilient food system within Pittsburgh that can serve as a model for the use of food as an economic, cultural, environmental, social and technological driver of regional transformation. The Pittsburgh region presents a unique opportunity to serve as a model for the transformative influence of food for people, communities, businesses and society. The Pittsburgh food economy is a $7 billion part of the regional economy and represents over 20% of the total regional employment. The food sector provides workforce development opportunities for half of the region’s population and is by nature diverse in terms of race, gender, culture, age, career stage and lifestyle. Our regional food system is essential in order to reduce hunger, improve health outcomes, support growth and development of our children and sustain vitality of our seniors. There is also an inextricable link between food, energy and environmental sustainability.

In order to realize the potential of the Pittsburgh regional food system, the Rescuing Abundance vision focuses on research, programs, policies, best practices and innovations across each of 6 goals outlined in the attached graphic.

Addressing each one of these areas will take focused research and collaboration between education, business, public and private sector organizations. The active collaboration across these diverse sectors is already embedded within the Pittsburgh region. The award-winning social documentary film entitled “Rescuing Abundance” that I co-wrote, directed and produced captures the potential that exists within the Pittsburgh region. 

This film, created in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh’s David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership and several community organizations, highlights the potential solutions to building a resilient food system. There is an opportunity to realize the potential for food systems within the Pittsburgh region as a model for food as a social and economic catalyst and equalizer. The vision of Rescuing Abundance is to leverage existing assets in order to co-create an inclusive food system that does not waste potential but produces a more resilient and sustainable regional ecosystem for everyone.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Dr. Kelly Gehlhoff

We are also known as Steel City here in Pueblo, CO but more quality food rescue efforts are up north in Denver. Good outlining the problems and how to address them.