LAS CRUCES – It’s been two years since the coronavirus pandemic kicked in and changed millions of lives across the country. For many people, one of the harsh consequences is the lack of reliable daily access to food. A group of researchers from New Mexico State University teamed up to collect key data and uncover factors that led to food insecurity amid COVID-19, while developing large-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 started this project about a year ago, after seeing the many challenges that COVID-19 poses, especially access to food. The work is part of the newly established 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 characteristics that caused some of the food insecurity?’ Everyone realized that sometimes they would go down the supermarket aisle and miss things. Different things that we used to just pick off the shelves and they’re just not there,” said Fuqua, assistant professor of information systems.
To discover some of these causes, the group first scouted several companies in the border region to collaborate and collect data from.
“We asked a major national food producer for access to all 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 to the wholesale locations to understand the flow of food item goods and services entering the communities.”
Fuqua explained that he and his colleagues did a lot of in-depth learning analysis of the data to try to understand what kinds of features drove the increase in food shortages. This includes looking at monthly unemployment rates, 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 came from the US Census Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, which helped the team map out specific information and differences between counties.
The research group started by analyzing 2019 data before the pandemic hit and then moved on to 2020, which was split into three phases: initial shutdowns when COVID was first discovered in the United States, later easing of the COVID-19 pandemic. restrictions and reintroduction of restrictions during the second wave.
“The most important thing we discovered was the effect of rising unemployment on fluctuating demand for food,” explains Fuqua. “Different types of predominant occupations in the area, be it agriculture, manufacturing or government, also impacted the turbulence in the food supply. The average age of the population was another important factor in how much food insecurity there was during COVID.
Collecting this research allowed the group to quantify the effect unemployment had as a major cause of food insecurity across the country. Another finding that stimulates future research is the increase in unemployment claims at the end of 2020.
An interesting discovery had to do with where most of the food items were stored.
“We didn’t expect to see so much change between rural and urban, and more items were added to urban shelves as opposed to rural shelves during food insecurity, which was also an eye opener,” Fuqua said.
Researchers found that companies struggled to meet demand during COVID-19 and lost money in some areas. The group began looking for mass recovery solutions to try to identify a decision model that companies can follow and use to prepare for future food disruptions.
“We are looking at some contingency solutions and some decision models to open new areas or close items that are prone to insecurity during COVID,” Fuqua said. “While we’re looking at COVID now, in the future, when global warming starts to play a bigger role, we’ll 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 important for the team, especially in the College of Business, to partner with local businesses and come up with solutions using the latest academic research.
“We see our work with food manufacturers as part of that,” Fuqua added. “One of the largest access routes to 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 said the main goal of this project is to see student success and lead NMSU graduates into their careers, whether in transportation, logistics or supply chain management.
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“We’ve already placed NMSU graduates through our collaborations,” he said. “As part of our job, we introduced them, but of course they did the work to get the job. We were able to open internships for students in other fields.”
The group has 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 that the group is also conducting another major research project on predictive analytics using big data in collaboration with factories 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].