AI for Equitable and Resilient Food Distribution during Disasters

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation under Award CNS-2133352

Food insecurity is the lack of consistent and reliable access to nutritious food. In the Houston (Texas) area, over 14% of Harris County households experienced food insecurity before the emergence of COVID-19. It is unclear how the nutritional needs of Houston’s vulnerable populations will be served when the next devastating weather event strikes the region, given that the city is already experiencing multiple disasters, including COVID-19, economic disruptions, and systemic food insecurity. The Houston Food Bank (HFB) collaborates with over 1,500 partners to address the needs of families experiencing food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched funding and personnel significantly while driving substantial increases in demand. HFB has adapted to past natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, in an ad hoc manner and seeks to build disaster resilience by incorporating strategies beyond current practices. The urgent needs are to identify food-insecure communities, understand their nutritional needs during disasters, and provide nutritious and culturally appropriate food in a manner that preserves privacy and dignity. Left unaddressed, these issues may create failures in HFB’s ability to distribute food effectively, equitably, and efficiently.

Through a community-driven approach, this project brings together civic collaborators with university researchers to align HFB’s food distribution strategy to match food insecurity during multiple disaster profiles. Collaborators that have driven this approach include food pantries associated with HFB, local government, state government, other food banks, Foodbank Associations, workforce development and education, housing, health organizations, United Way, and YMCA. Leveraging lessons learned from six workshops conducted with HFB and its partners during our Stage 1 planning grant, we will jointly undertake a research-centered, socio-technical approach to develop and evaluate decision-making tools that incorporate equity indices for selecting food distribution hubs to improve the resilience of the food distribution network. Our project has the following objectives:

  • develop indicators of individual and community equity for food distribution during pandemics and extreme weather events;
  • design a network organizational resilience index for food bank networks and interventions to improve network resilience;
  • develop and validate a predictive tool for infrastructure vulnerability, and
  • develop and validate an artificial-intelligence based decision-making tool for determining the locations of food distribution hubs and their food allocation.

Our team is focused on turning research into action. The decision-making tools produced will be disseminated to other disaster-vulnerable food banks throughout the United States, supporting transferable applications of AI-based techniques for food distribution optimization.

This project is part of the CIVIC Innovation Challenge which is a collaboration of NSF, Department of Energy Vehicle Technology Office, Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Aron Laszka
Aron Laszka
Assistant Professor