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Helping local food banks and food suppliers through research

An initiative at IU Indianapolis provides community organizations access to expertise in business, technology and design to reduce food insecurity in Marion County

May 28, 2024

Four people sit around a cafeteria style table with a large colorful mural in the background IU researchers worked with four community outreach organizations to optimize their food pantry operations. Pictured clockwise from front left: Isaak Ssaku of Purdue School of Engineering and Technology; Kara Krol of the IU Herron School of Art and Design; Anamitra Jana of the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering; Dawn Dunderdale, director of programs and services at the Hawthorne Community Center. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University


With support from partners in government and business, Indiana University Indianapolis researchers are addressing the issue of food insecurity in Marion County.

Led by IU’s Initiative for Electrified and Autonomous Mobility, a designated university center supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, faculty and students from multiple schools on campus are providing expertise to improve operations at food banks and food suppliers in central Indiana. The project is sponsored by the initiative and the Toyota Mobility Foundation.

“There are over 210 food pantries in Marion County alone, and they serve about 900,000 people — or nearly 25 percent of the county’s population — nearly two-thirds of which are working,” said Clayton Nicholas, executive director of the Initiative for Electrified and Autonomous Mobility and an industry research development specialist with the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and IU Innovation and Commercialization Office. “This project is addressing a topic of major significance in our community.”

A woman selects canned goods from a table A food pantry client selects canned goods during one of several sessions to assess user preferences at the Hawthorn Community Center. IU students with expertise in design, technology and supply chain management provided the center leaders detailed plans to optimize pantry operations based on observations. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

The multi-year project recently wrapped up an important phase, with five student teams from four schools assessing the needs of five food banks across the region and designing solutions for them to implement.

First launched to explore how the future of autonomous vehicles — or “self-driving cars” — could potentially transform the operation of food pantries in Indiana, the project has since expanded to focus other aspects of food bank optimization. It is also studying policies and practices to make sure the adoption of autonomous vehicles will benefit all Hoosiers.

“We don’t want autonomous vehicles to fall into the same divisive category as some other conversations about new technology, like coal versus electricity,” Nicholas said. “We want to focus on how technology can help everyone.”

The initiative’s food bank partners are Hawthorne Community Center in the Haughville neighborhood near IU Indianapolis; the Southeast Community Center in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis; God’s Bounty in Wanamaker, Indiana; the food pantry at Old Bethel United Methodist Church in Warren Township; and Westminster Neighborhood Services on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis.

IU schools partnering on the work include the IU Luddy School of Computing, Informatics and Engineering; IU Herron School of Art and Design; and IU Kelley School of Business.

Students from each school spent the past semester working in small teams with the food bank partners to apply expertise in technology, design and supply-chain management toward a specific challenge at each site. Students received course credit for their work through their schools.

“This experience was a core requirement for first-year students pursuing a master’s in design with a focus on design research at Herron,” said Youngbok Hong, a professor and director of the visual communications design graduate program at the Herron School, who is one of the faculty overseeing student work on the project. “It’s important for our students to know how to conduct qualitative research as part of their training on working with clients. This was their first experience with a community-engaged action research project.”

Four people sit around a cafeteria-style table talking IU students Kara Krol and Anamitra Jana, left, speak with Dawn Dunderdale, right, after the exercise. Students worked to balance food pantry leaders' and clients' needs in their recommendations. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana UniversityEach project is tailored to the needs of the partner site. IU students worked with the Hawthorne Community Center’s leaders to support the transformation from a “grab-and-go” pantry experience — where clients receive pre-selected foods — to a “supermarket-like” experience, where pantry users pick out food based on their specific needs.

The center, which holds two “pantry days” each month, serves about 40 local families, on average. The support to reconfigure their pantry space comes from a grant from the Indianapolis Food Network.

Kara Krol, a Herron School graduate student, led the team working at the Hawthorne Center. She and fellow students organized six sessions throughout the semester to understand the needs of the center’s leaders and clients.

“There were new things to take away from every session,” Krol said. “We were very much driven by a desire to bridge the needs of staff and clients into a seamless and low-stress operation.”

The work included an initial session to walk through the pantry and understand processes; two “ideation sessions” to collect insights from staff and from clients; two “prototyping sessions” with staff only to explore potential changes to the existing processes; and a final session with staff and clients.

For example, the sessions with clients provided greater insight into users’ preferred shopping styles and the most popular items, Krol said. The students also noted that many clients were older adults who could not lift heavy items or stand for extended periods of time — important considerations in terms of designing the right user experience.

Krol and another student on the project — Anamitra Jana of the Luddy School — also served as volunteers at Westminster Neighborhood Services, one of the other food bank partner sites. Krol said the experience provided additional insights into the needs of pantry clients and volunteers.

A man with a beard reaches into a box as a man stands behind him Another pantry client selects items from a box during a research session at the Hawthorn Center. Anamitra Jana observes with a laptop in the background. Liz Kaye, Indiana University

“The biggest thing I learned from this project is how much feedback can drive process,” she said. “We came into Hawthorne not knowing how we were going to help them or improve their pantry functions. Everything to answer the desires and needs of the staff and clients was uncovered during our sessions.

“Rather than trying to plan everything without knowing the finish line, I learned how to build session plans based on prior feedback and interpret information throughout the process.”

Jana participated in the project as the capstone project for his master’s degree in human computer interaction. He said that the project was an “eye-opener.”

“Food insecurity is a multifaceted issue with no single cause,” he said. “People might be unemployed, working multiple jobs, disabled, or battling addiction, but the common thread is their inability to meet their family’s nutritional needs. These services often face social stigma and trust issues, so creating a welcoming and supportive environment is crucial. Efficiency in pantry operations means they can serve more people or provide more food, aligning with both their short-term and long-term goals.”

Additional students working with the Hawthorn Community Center were Clara Oforiwaa Agbeduamenu of the IU Kelley School of Business in Bloomington and Hamad Alhajeri and Isaac Ssaku of the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology.

In addition to the food banks, Nicholas said the Initiative for Electrified and Autonomous Mobility-led project is officially partnered with three local food suppliers — Gleaner’s Food Bank of Indiana, the Midwest Food Bank and Second Helpings — as well as the Indy Hunger Network.

Next semester, Nicholas said, the project’s work will continue with a new cohort of students. including exploring ways to leverage autonomous vehicles to address the community needs and challenges identified earlier in the project.


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