The Michigan Engineer News Center

Research team takes on food insecurity in Detroit in the face of coronavirus limitations

Researchers are working with the city on two key initiatives to address food availability for elderly and low-income populations.| Short Read

Our campus, like the global community, is contending with COVID-19 and working to adapt to a new normal. Many are rapidly working on solutions. See all COVID-19 developments from University of Michigan Engineering.


Access to food is a critical measure of societal disparity that has been brought into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. School lunch programs that previously helped bridge a gap for low income families are unavailable during school closures, and households without smartphone or internet access are cut off from delivery services that could save them trips to the grocery store.

EnlargeDetroit city skyline
IMAGE:  Detroit skyline and the Detroit International Riverfront as seen from Windsor, Ontario. Photograph taken by Shawn Wilson, copied from English Wikipedia.

To address these shortcomings, a team led by Prof. Robert Hampshire from the Ford School of Public Policy and including Bernard A. Galler Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science HV Jagadish and other Engineering faculty is working with the City of Detroit to identify healthcare-related mobility and grocery delivery solutions for elderly and low-income populations within the city. The team will provide data and policy analysis to two of the city’s new pilot programs, School Lunch Delivery for Vulnerable Families and an effort to address food access limitations with multiple data sources like scooters, bikeshares, and autonomous vehicles.

The team has done previous work with the city and the Department of Transportation on transportation equity in conjunction with their ongoing project to build a Transportation Open Knowledge Network (OKN). The network was designed to tackle disparities in access to transportation throughout the city, the team believes it can be made directly applicable to the new mobility issues associated with COVID-19.

To make this happen, they’re working on three main tasks:
Integrating data from the Food Security Index (FSI) into the existing Transportation OKN.
Identifying the geographical areas and populations most affected by both food and transportation insecurity.
Developing and deploying the two pilot programs in Detroit with the objective of addressing the lack of access to food.

The team will then use these results to provide recommendations for the structure of deployment of the pilot programs by disseminating it to a broad audience using the Transportation OKN platform. The recommendations will include insights that can be generalized to multiple cities, as a way of informing how other cities could learn and benefit from Detroit’s experience with the pilot programs.

Detroit city skyline
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Steve Crang
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Michigan Engineering

(734) 763-9996

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