By Raleigh Butler and Qining Wang

This story is part of a series on coronavirus research in the Midwest region. To explore other NSF-funded research addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the COVID Information Commons, a project of the four NSF Big Data Innovation Hubs.

The University of Michigan received a RAPID award from the National Science Foundation in the early stages of the pandemic to explore improving food-insecurity conditions driven by the pandemic. The project, titled “Improving Transportation Equity to Enhance Food Security for Families Vulnerable to COVID-19,” is led by Robert Hampshire, in collaboration with H. V. Jagadish, Tayo Fabusuyi, and Aditi Misra.

The project builds on earlier NSF-funded research that developed the Transportation Equity Open Knowledge Network (OKN). The researchers integrated data from the Food Security Index and other sources into the Transportation Equity OKN. The researchers proposed to “investigate, and begin to develop mechanisms to address, the lack of access to food (i.e., food insecurity) associated with COVID-19 and the role of transportation challenges leading to food insecurity.” The research builds on prior work to support the development and evaluation of a meal-delivery program, as well as the identification of people and places most at risk of food insecurity due to a lack of access to transportation.


As a part of the project, the research team provided background context and technical assistance to the City of Detroit’s pilot program that delivers meals to vulnerable families.

The project aims to address the food insecurity as a result of the underlying inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, many low-income, marginalized, and vulnerable households struggled with access to food because of reduced public-transit services and inability to access internet services. Consequently, these households cannot place food orders or call for food delivery. Fearful of contracting COVID, many also avoided in-person grocery shopping. Considering the underlying broader social inequality, the food-insecurity situation isn’t just about food. In times of COVID-19, it translates into broader issues of health insecurity.

To address this issue, Hampshire’s team takes a data-driven approach to estimate the number and the key demographics of households facing food insecurity. In addition, they also worked with the City’s pilot program—Covid Food Delivery Program (CFDP)—to provide meal-delivery services for identified food-insecure households that rely on public transit in the City of Detroit or based on health referrals. By making their results publicly available, the team hopes their findings could inform policy makers to create more effective mitigation measures.


Choosing the City of Detroit as their case study, the team used data from multiple sources to identify the key demographic characteristics of households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Electronic Benefits Transfer (SNAP/EBT) benefits. The team estimated that 71,600 households across Michigan met criteria for both food and transportation insecurity based on the US Census Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), of which 20,800 are from the City of Detroit. Finer segmentation based on geography and household composition were also carried out. By narrowing down the sample size to a finer geographic region, the team can easily replicate their approach for other local regions with more accurate Census tracts and more consistent information on food services.

The team randomly selected 350 patrons from the CFDP data dashboard to investigate the benefits of food delivery during the pandemic. They found that even though the program’s service only accounted for roughly 70% of the households’ weekly food consumption, 86% of the recipients of the program’s service reported having sufficient food each week.

However, many also reported that the food deliveries lack refrigerated items such as dairy and meat. Alarmingly, they also found more than a third of the patrons were first-time beneficiaries of CFPD, suggesting the pandemic is creating new cases of food insecurity in Detroit.

Through the analysis, the research team was able to identify the key benefits and issues of CFDP, which enabled CFDP to secure additional resources to redesign and expand their program. This program has now received an additional $1.5 million that can sustain the program until 2024. The work of the research team serves as an example of data for social good, in which a data-driven approach provides insightful guidance on how to mitigate issues around food insecurity.

Tayo Fabusuyi, the lead author of the project’s report, stated that “by documenting the program’s process issues and demonstrating how food insecurity severity could be estimated for different geographic areas, the program could easily be replicated at city or neighborhood level across the US. The project allows for learnings and adaptations not only by the City of Detroit, but also other cities that may be grappling with similar challenges.” The report closes by saying, “We believe that other cities will benefit from our documentation, learn from our experience and be able to modify similar program designs to address local peculiarities.”

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about how data directly connects to societal issues and human lives, consider attending MBDH’s “Smart & Resilient Communities / Data for Social Good” panel discussion, which will be held Thursday, October 28, 2021 – 2:00–3:00 p.m. CT / 3:00–4:00 p.m. ET. This panel includes one of the project’s Co-Principal Investigators, Tayo Fabusuyi.

Get involved

Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub if you’re aware of other projects we should include here, or to participate in any of our community-led Priority Areas.

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University, Iowa State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the NSF Big Data Innovation Hubs community.