It has been two years since the coronavirus pandemic swept in and changed millions of lives across the nation. For many people, one of the hard-hitting effects is the lack of reliable daily access to food. A group of researchers at New Mexico State University teamed up to collect important data and discover factors that led to food insecurity amid COVID-19, while developing wide-scale recovery strategies for businesses in the future.
NMSU faculty members Donovan Fuqua, Barry Brewer, Victor Pimentel and Faruk Arslan in the College of Business bring together expertise in logistics, management, supply chains and transportation. The group began this project about a year ago, after seeing the multitude of challenges brought on by COVID-19 – especially 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 happening, we started thinking, ‘What were some of the effects and features that drove some of the food insecurity?’ Everybody realized sometimes they would go to the grocery aisle and things would be missing. Different things that we were used to just picking off the shelves and they’re just not there,” said Fuqua, assistant professor of information systems.
In order to discover some of these causes, the group first scouted different firms in the Borderland to partner with and collect data from.
“We asked a large national food producer for access to all of their data, and they were extremely helpful,” Fuqua said. “They gave us all their data from the Midwest, so about 12 different states. We got their wholesale data from fulfillment and distribution centers down to the wholesale locations to understand the flow of goods and services of food items going into the communities.”
Fuqua explained he and his colleagues did a lot of deep learning analysis of the data to try and understand what kind of features sparked the uptick in food shortages. This includes looking at month-to-month unemployment rates, population demographics, ethnicities, ages and more. They also differentiated the types and costs of foods such as staples, snacks, and shelf-stable items. Other data collected was from the U.S. Census Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other sources, which helped the team map out specific information and differences between counties.
The research group began analyzing the data from 2019 before the pandemic hit and then proceeded with 2020, which was split into three phases: the initial lockdowns when COVID was first detected in the United States, later relaxation of COVID restrictions, and reintroduction of restrictions during the second surge.
“The big thing we found was regarding the effect of rising unemployment on fluctuating food demand,” Fuqua explained. “Different kinds of predominant professions in the area whether it was agriculture, manufacturing, or government also impacted food supply turbulence. Average population age was another key factor in how much food insecurity there was during COVID.”
By gathering this research, the group was able to quantify the effect that unemployment had as a high driver of food insecurity across the nation. Another finding that is driving future research is the increase of unemployment claims during late 2020.
One interesting discovery related to where most food items were being shelved.
“We did not expect to see much as much change between rural to urban, and more items were added to urban shelves as opposed to rural shelves during food insecurities, which was an eye-opener as well,” Fuqua said.
Researchers found that companies struggled to meet demand during COVID-19 and lost money in some areas. The group began exploring solutions for wide-scale recovery to try and identify a decision model that companies can follow and use to prepare for future food disruptions.
“We’re looking at some solutions for contingency contracting, and some decision models to open new areas or shut down items that are prone to insecurity during COVID,” said Fuqua. “Even though what we’re looking at right now is COVID, in the future, if global warming becomes more of a factor, we may be able to model future food insecurity based on what happened during the pandemic.”
As part of the outreach mission at NMSU, Fuqua said it’s been important to the team, especially in the College of Business, to work with local companies and enact solutions with the latest academic research.
“We see our work with food producers as part of that,” Fuqua added. “One of the largest inroads to the U.S. right now is the El Paso/Juarez corridor for transportation. Transportation logistics is an area that provides research opportunities for other disciplines like engineering as well.”
Fuqua said the main goal of this project is to see student success and help lead NMSU graduates to their career fields, whether it’s transportation, logistics, or supply chain management.
“We’ve already had NMSU graduates placed through our collaborations,” he said. “As part of our work, we’ve introduced them, but of course they did the work to get the job. We’ve been able to open internships for students through in other areas.”
The group already submitted their first research paper to the Journal of Business Logistics and plans to have two follow-up papers ready in the spring and summer.
Fuqua added the group is also conducting another major research project in predictive analytics using big data in partnership with manufacturing plants in Mexico.