Pittsburgh Food Accessibility

User Research / Case Study / Social Impact


Many low-income Pittsburgh residents struggle to obtain fresh and healthy produce on a regular basis. Our team sought to develop a sustainable solution that would help reduce dependency on food banks and kitchens in the long-run. After doing research out in the community, we created interventions around food education issues and employment for lower-income residents.

This 8 week project was done in collaboration with Maggie Banks (Product Design) and Grace Guo (Cognitive Science) for the HCI Spring course, User Centered Research and Evaluation.

Developing a Mission Statement

Learning About Food Deserts

"The stretch of Larimer is one of many pockets of hunger in Pittsburgh, a city in which 47 percent of residents live in what are known as food deserts, according to a 2012 Dept. of Treasury report."  – McCart, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

A few months ago, I couldn't tell you what the definition of a food desert is. I had no idea that so many Pittsburgh communities exist within a food desert. With so many popular restaurants opening up downtown, you would never know...To begin our process, we first researched what we could on the state of food deserts at both the national and local level. Before we could conduct any field research, we needed to first equip ourselves with enough basic information.

Our team scanned through various research papers, articles and data sets on the subject matter, compiling questions that we had for ourselves and for members in the community. What issues are food banks and kitchens facing today? What problems do the clients face? Once we had a good grasp on the issue, we started reaching out to organizers and members of food banks and kitchens in the area to better understand the situation through their lens and experiences.

An interactive map that shows people where the food deserts are in Pittsburgh (Post-Gazette).

An interactive map that shows people where the food deserts are in Pittsburgh (Post-Gazette).

Defining the Research Problem

Based on our initial research, looking into the state of food deserts and accessibility around Pittsburgh, our team developed a clear mission statement. We chose to focus on three main areas in particular: food insecurity, food education and affordable access.

Our mission statement is "to diminish food insecurity through education and affordable access". 

  1. How do we improve access to public transportation across Pittsburgh for those in food deserts? People struggle to obtain healthy foods because they cannot make the trip to the store. 

  2. ow can we encourage better decision making when it comes to selecting and preparing what foods to eat? We want to better educate people about the benefits of eating healthy. 

  3. How can we create a sustainable and cost-efficient solution that regularly brings healthy food to people in food deserts? We want to explore the benefits of bringing food to the people instead. 

These issues are important for us to care about because the negative impacts affect more than just the people who struggle to obtain fresh produce on a regular basis. 

Narrowing our target audience to be more specifically focused on an area of Pittsburgh.

Narrowing our target audience to be more specifically focused on an area of Pittsburgh.

Photo of the "Nutrition Newsletter" passed out at the local food bank.

Photo of the "Nutrition Newsletter" passed out at the local food bank.

Key Research Findings

The lack of transportation should be a main concern.

Pittsburgh is notorious for its hilly terrain and harsh weather conditions. This makes going to the grocery store, which usually is over a mile away, more difficult both physically and psychologically. When we started interviewing members of the local food kitchens and pantries, we found that many of them have a strong desire to eat well. But the lack of access to transportation gets in the way of doing so.

Food banks are only temporary solutions.

A key finding we discovered is that the solutions in place as of now, act only as a temporary band-aid and don't tackle the issues holistically on a national scale. Food banks and community gardens, for example, really only benefit those who are nearby and have easy access to them. If we want to help those who are hungry and in need, the solutions have to be sustainable in providing longterm access to healthy, fresh produce. These individuals should not have to put in extra work just because they lack transportation and are situationally disadvantaged.

Giving food to the hungry only alleviates the issue for a period of time. Unfortunately, it does not get rid of the problem completely. Entire communities need to get involved in order to elicit some measure of change.

Conducting Field Research

Our team spent two weeks doing contextual inquiries with members of nearby food banks and pantries. We made visits to Jubilee Food Kitchen, CHS Food Pantry and St. Paul's Food Bank. Going in-person to these locations allowed us to get to know visitors on a more personal level. We asked questions about transportation and food accessibility. We were particularly interested in knowing what kind of struggles they faced in getting to and from the food banks or kitchens. What kind of pain points did they hit in their journey to obtain fresh produce?

One visitor revealed to us that she has pays $5 to make a trip one way for an hour on the bus just to get to the food kitchen.

 When we asked her why she bothered coming to such a far away place, she told us that going to the food kitchen was not just about getting a meal. To her, the food kitchen has become a second home. She goes there to see her friends, feel entertained and catch up about what's been going on in the neighborhood. As we interviewed more people at the kitchen, we found that others felt the same way.

Creating User Personas and Journey Maps

After completing the interviews, our team worked together to create a few user personas based off of our findings. These archetypal users provide us with realistic contexts and scenarios to design for as we move forward in the process of trying to come up with solutions to implement in the community that tackle accessibility and food education.

Personas help remind us of who we are designing for and why. We can easily identify their unique motivations and challenges. 

Journey maps are visualized sequences of customer actions, separated into different stages that identify what a customer is thinking for feeling at a certain period of time. Do certain parts of the journey take longer than others? When are they frustrated? These maps provide a holistic view of what it's like to obtain fresh produce from the perspective of the customers. These diagrams also allow us to identify touch points and pain points in the user journey where there may exist design opportunities for intervention. 

Synthesizing Findings from Interviews

We also created an affinity diagram to categorize the quotes and key findings from the contextual inquiries. Then, we sorted the quotes into small sections, adding a unique label to each category. This step really helped us understand, as a group, what kind of overall themes and problem areas we were working with in trying to create a solution. 

For example, one of the yellow category labels read: “Donations are unpredictable based on frequency and type”.

Our group could reference the quotes underneath that support the claim and then work from there to try and ideate what kind of interventions could be put in place to mitigate this unpredictable frequency in donations. We look at these themes and ask ourselves: What can we do? How can design be applied to this situation?

Reframing the Question

Once we completed a significant amount of analysis, our team sat down to start ideating solutions. We started making some “How Might We...” statements to get us thinking about the problems at hand in a different light. Reframing the context of the situation allowed us to discover new approaches to the issue which we had never thought about before. In parallel to this, we made storyboards that were aimed at answering the proposed questions. Storyboards help communicate to design ideas by putting them in the context of a relatable or believable narrative.

After assessing our findings around food accessibility, education and sustainability, our team brainstormed interventions that could potentially improve the experience of visiting a food bank or kitchen for all stakeholders involved.

We proposed a new way for clients to exchange information on nutrition and meal preparation within the community through the use of recipe cards. In addition, we developed a framework for a Co-op program that could be adopted by food banks to reduce visitor dependency on resources in the long-run.

Discovery #1: We can improve food education by leveraging the communities at food banks.

Organizers want to improve food literacy within the community but struggle to do so in a successful and efficient manner. They also would like clients to make better decisions about the food that they are taking home from food banks and kitchens. How can we get them to pick from the more nutritious options? Customers tend to avoid fresh produce that they are unfamiliar with or looks unappealing to them.

One-on-one sharing of simple recipes, however, has proven to be effective in getting people to feel more comfortable trying new ingredients in their meals. We felt that this method was something worth thinking about. How can we leverage the information that is already known by some members of the community to help educate those who are less aware, about food literacy and nutritional health?

By providing a platform for clients to share recipe cards with one another, we hope that individuals feel more better about trying new foods at food banks and kitchens.

This solution utilizes the food trays and bulletin boards that are already in use by the existing communities in the food kitchen. We hope that people will be more inclined to try out ways of preparing meals and eating food after reading about other people's experiences in trying out unique foods. 

Discovery #2: We need to reduce customer dependency on food banks in the long-term.

Most customers of food banks have been coming frequently for long periods of time. Some of them have difficulties finding work to support themselves, while others have simply become accustomed to obtaining food from the food bank. This causes some staff members to be concerned that these able bodied individuals are no longer part of the workforce even though they can still take on a job.

Reducing dependency on food banks is a challenge that needs to be solved, but it is a multi-faceted problem. For customers to support themselves independently, they will need help developing the skills and experience needed to return to work. We want to provide clients with the opportunity to get operational work experience through a co-op program run by the food bank and its organizers.

Organizers could distribute managerial tasks to volunteers. Clients would benefit by gaining marketable skills.

This solution might help clients, like Tyler, who is actively searching for a job so that he can have a steady stream of income. In return for volunteering their time at the food bank, clients would receive a gift card to a local grocery store. These gift cards would be purchased with reallocated money from third party organizations (groups that typically donate to the holiday programs held by food banks). 

Final Thoughts

With another month to work on this, we would have liked to return to the local food banks and kitchens to gather feedback on these ideas. Given the time constraints, we did not have a chance to test any ideas with clients.

The participation of external clients throughout this project helped make it a successful one. It would have been nice to actually work with one of the organizations and implement one or two of the ideas temporarily. This probably would involve another round of interviews, user testing and research. We would need to have more conversations with both clients and organizers.

For example, could we actually identify a third party group that would consent to us using reallocated money for gift cards? If we can't, what is an alternative solution to that matter? We want to ensure that the solutions are feasible and most importantly, beneficial to everyone involved.

There is still so much more research to be done but our work has helped give stakeholders something to think about.