Food Accessibility: A Study

Pittsburgh is a city with one of the highest percentages of food insecurity in America. In this study, our team sought to learn more about the current situation and understand what it will take to solve this problem through contextual inquiries, expert interviews and affinity diagrams.

Team members: Margaret Banks, Tiffany Jiang


Eliminate food insecurity through education and affordable access.

Preliminary Research

We began by reading up existing studies about food accessibility in Pittsburgh. Many organisations in Pittsburgh, such as JustHarvest and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, have done great work studying and increasing accessibility to healthy food. In particular, A Menu for Food Justice was an invaluable starting point for our own research.

The initial problems we identified from this preliminary research fell under three broad categories:

distance limited transportation poverty

Interviews and Contextual Inquiries

We reached out to a number of food banks and food kitchens in Pittsburgh for interviews, and many offered to let our team visit their premises and conduct contextual inquiries with their staff and customers.

From these contextual inquiries, it became apparent that the problem was much larger than we had initially understood, consisting of many interconnected factors that all affect an individual's accessibility to healthy, fresh produce. Mel, from the CHS Food Pantry, puts it best:

"Handing someone food is not solving issues... It is just a temporary band aid."

Affinity Digrams

Affinity diagrams help make sense of qualitative data gathered in the field. By organising and grouping interview notes by topic similarity, we were able to identify patterns in the experiences of our interviewees, key insights and possible design opportunities.

What we initially thought were the main problems are now only components of a much larger picture. The real scope of the challenges that food bank clients face is much greater, and of these, we chose to focus on food literacy and employment.

health limited transportation poverty
age distance employment
food literacy terrain age


Personas are archetypal users created to represent the individuals we design for, they provide realistic context and scenarios for how users will interact with proposed solutions.

We made personas of the different types of customers we were designing for. These personas were based off the personal stories of the clients we spoke to. There is Tyler, a young man who cannot find work and feels 'stuck in a limbo'. Gabrielle is a mother of two who recently suffered a stroke; she learns about preparing new foods through cooking for her family. Patrick is unemployed, he helps out around the house while his fiancee works; he is generally content with life.

Journey Maps

Journey maps are visualised sequences of customer actions, organized into stages with customer feelings and frustrations at each stage mapped out. These maps helped us identify touchpoints and breakdowns that can be turned into design opportunities.

How might we encourage clients to discover new ways of preparing healthy foods through an exchange of knowledge?

Food literacy is about encouraging customers to choose healthy food and produce for themselves. When tackling this problem, we wanted to share the knowledge and experiences that many clients already have.

Our proposed solution is for customers, when they collect their food, to receive blank recipe cards that they can then fill in with their own recipes. The cards are shared on the bulletin boards at food pantries and soup kitchens for other customers to see.

This solution was created for clients like Gabrielle who visit the soup kitchen not just for food but also to socialize with their friends. As we found, the most effective food literacy education came from one-on-one conversations. We hope that such a solution will leverage on the existing communities at food pantries and soup kitchens to encourage customers to try new produce and new recipes.

How might we turn clients into contributors instead of just benefactors?

The problem of employment is particularly relevant to customers like Tyler and Patrick who have the capabilities to work but lack the opportunity. We wanted to propose a solution that helps them gain marketable skills while also returning them their sense of independence and security.

Our proposed solution is a co-op program at the food bank; volunteers will help with the operations and in return, they will receive gift cards for grocery stores. Through working at the food bank, customers will gain experience managing, distributing and taking stock of the produce; these experiences can then help them in their job search. Additionally, food banks will also have a constant group of volunteers to help the work they do. It is our hope that this solution can thus benefit both clients and staff in the long-term.

Next Steps

Due to time constraints for this project, we were unfortunately unable to fully develop our proposed solutions. Given more time, we will like to return to the food pantries and kitchens to gather customer feedback about these proposals. In addition, our solutions require the work and support of staff and volunteers, so we will also have liked to work with the organisations to refine each solution into a feasible plan of action. Ultimately, with feedback from both customers and volunteers, we want to improve our proposed solutions such that they are appealing and effective at mitigating challenges to food accessibility.

Special Thanks

Maggie and Tiff, for their invaluable contributions and general awesomeness.

Paulette Blasko, Mel Cronin, Tom and Peggy Donley, for their generous insights and knowledge. We could not have done this without your help.

The customers of Jubilee Soup Kitchen and St. Paul's of the Cross Monastery Food Bank. Thank you for sharing your stories.

© Grace Guo, 2017