The 'Access, Visibility, and Engagement' Framework: Recommendations for Supporting the Food Insecure University Student Population

Data Visualization / Design Research / Co-Design / Food Insecurity / Group Dynamics /  Interdisciplinary Collaboration / Rapid Prototyping / Social Impact

Creative Interdisciplinary Research in Graduate Education (CIRGE), and
The Social Impact Innovation Hub, Baida Institute, Drexel University

Advisors: Diana Nicholas,  Dr. Fraser Fleming, and Dr. Paul Gondek
Work type: Academic Research
Role:  Graduate Design Researcher
Dates:  January 2022 - 2023

How might we equip decision makers with an equity-centered framework to collaboratively improve services for university student food insecurity?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states, “[food insecurity] may be influenced by a number of factors, including income, employment, race/ethnicity, and disability. The risk for food insecurity increases when money to buy food is limited or not available." - linkAccess to nutritious foods, like produce, should be an essential human right. Food insecurity is a global issue, often rooted in complex systemic issues like race and disinvestment in community. 

In 2021, 3 billion people globally could not afford to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Project Overview

Creative Interdisciplinary Research in Graduate Education (CIRGE), at Drexel University, is a three-year project aimed at jump-starting a new team-based, interdisciplinary minor which purposely injected creative thinking and problem solving into graduate education across multiple disciplines.

In 2022, I participated in the 11-week intensive course, CIRGE. Our multi-disciplinary team was tasked with utilizing key lessons in group dynamics, creativity, marketing, design thinking, and human-centered design, to identify a problem area, research, and synthesize our findings into a designed solution for a social impact project. 

Our self-defined goal was to create a transformative framework and service design concept to address student food insecurity on university campuses, while incorporating social impact and Benefit Corporation practices into the product strategy.

We conducted mixed-methods research and literature review, analyzing food insecurity systems, policies, and people. We recruited and interviewed key stakeholders including students, faculty, and food supply service partners at the university to uncover areas of opportunity. Using various mapping and creativity methods, we synthesized the research, resulting in a holistic framework and toolkit for university leadership & administrators to utilize when developing programming and resources dedicated to supporting student well-being, all rooted in the sustainability goals of Social Impact Innovation. 
Access, Visibility, and Engagement Framework. 2022
Example research cards.

Our findings provided the university with valuable insights for enhancing food insecurity support initiatives and led to actionable recommendations including, centralizing digital resources, communications strategies, and a generative study plan using HCD research methods to empathetically align student needs with program aims.

This project was presented at Drexel's Creativity Salon Virtual Event 2022, and at the Drexel Alumni Board Committee Annual Meeting, 2023. Using this project, our team created an entrepreneurial pitch and won grant funding as one of 10 teams (20% of applicants) selected to develop a business model and MVP service design proposal for The Social Impact Innovation Hub,2023 at the Baiada Insititute, Close School of Entrepreneurship, Drexel.

My Contributions

Ecosystem mapping exercise.

I served the team in various capacities as a facilitator, researcher, and project manager, in support of our collaborative interdisciplinary engagement and mixed-methods research project.

I contributed to the gathering, analysis, and synthesis of research findings that led to the co-creation of a scalable framework, toolkit, and diary study project plan for analyzing student food insecurity programs and resources.

Our Process

As part of our process, we developed a Creativity Tools Tracker to visualize how we applied various lessons from the CIRGE class throughout the 10 week engagement. 

Looking, Asking, Fusing, and Learning are borrowed from the Luma Institute book 'Innovating for People'. The sub-categories are creativity and research exercises from Keith Sawyer's book 'Zig Zag', and the 'Equity-Centered Design Feild Guide'.

Other methods/ approaches used:
  • Luma Institute Research Methods
  • Zig Zag: Creativity Tools (by Keith Sawyer)
  • Literature review
  • Data analysis & synthesis
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Landscape analysis through research mapping
  • Co-design, generative study plan
  • Stakeholder Identification and Interview Recruitment
  • Interviews and Coding
  • B-Corp & Social Impact Principles
  • Equity-Centered Design Feild Guide

Creativity tools tracker. 2022

Initial Research and Problem Area Identification

In the early stages of the research project, our multi-disciplinary team was tasked with utilizing lessons in group dynamics, creativity, and human-centered design research, to select/ identify a problem area, hone in on a problem statement, gather/perform research, and ultimately synthesize our findings into a designed solution for a social impact project.

Team Mind-Map.

Our team took turns identifying social issues in the city of Philadelphia that we could design an intervention or solution for, and we created a mind map with these topic areas (blue). The mind map highlighted how systemically interconnected many of our interest areas were, often one feeds into another. 

With this in mind, we chose the topic of 'food insecurity at Drexel University', based on our collective interest, proximity to research resources and stakeholders, and the potential for our project outcome to have larger systemic impacts. Initially, our exploratory research into the topic of food insecurity uncovered a extensive problem areas under the umbrella topic (brown).

Defining the Problem

Research and data collection.

What is our goal?

We want to solve for food insecurity through community approaches, because nutritious food access is a fundamental human right.

Good research is all about asking the right questions in order to clearly define the problem.

Exploratory primary and secondary research, literature review, interviews, data collection, synthesis and analysis methods were used in tandem with human-centered design and group creativity tools to gain an understanding of food insecurity’s prevalence and impact on student populations.

First, we performed literature review and data gathering surrounding the topic to help us define our goals. Specifically we researched food insecurity data in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and on Drexel's campus.

We found that between 2020-2022, 1.5 million people (10%> of PA population) reported food insecure in Pennsylvania (link). U.S. Department of Agriculture data in 2022 reveals the share of U.S. households that couldn't reliably afford food rose 2+% year over year (10% to 12%) .

Based on 2021 survey data results from the Hope Center, 33% of college students surveyed nationwide experienced food insecurity. This means more than 4 million students are food insecure, and as a result, almost half (43%) of those students are less likely to graduate. Results also show that in 2021, 32% of Drexel students reported as food insecure.

Method: Fish Bone Exercise

We used our new understanding of food insecurity and applied it to the 'fish-bone' diagram to narrow our problem statement. 

This technique is a creativity and research tool that visualizes causes and effects, to help identify the root of problems. It can also help to define problem areas and set a goal. In this case, the bones represent the causes and effects of food insecurity, while the head of the fish represents our main goal.

We highlighted:

  • A need to destigmatize food insecurity
  • Issues with transport and logistics 
  • Communication gaps
  • Lack of decision-maker level awareness
  • Mismatch of needs to offerings
  • Root-causes of food insecurity

Method: "How Might We" ...

Using Miro's collaborative whiteboard tool, our team spent a few minutes independently writing down keywords that might work to define our "how might we". When the time was up we grouped matching words and then collaboratively worked through variations on the statement until it resonated with our mission.

How might we equip decision makers with an equity-centered framework to collaboratively improve programs for university student food insecurity?

Decision makers are people holding positions of authority to decide within organizations

Equity-centered framework is a structure that adapts to the different needs of the community members

Collaboratively improve programs through participatory, co-design, and generative research studies 

University student food insecurity
is both the stakeholder/end-user and the focus of our research

Method: Stakeholder Mapping

We created a stakeholder map using to identify anyone that might be impacted by food insecurity in university settings, and their proximity to the issue.

The visualization shows just how far reaching the issue of food insecurity can be.

Method: Interviews

We performed 10 interviews/focus groups. Each interview was approximately one hour long. The aim of each interview was to get an understanding of the needs, functions, viewpoints, and relationships between the stakeholders.

Who we spoke with:
Student Advocates
Drexel Admin
Drexel Food Services
Drexel Student Organizations
Drexel Food Insecurity Resource Departments
Local Philadelphia Food Access Organizations

Through our research, we found:

- Siloing of departments. A need for tiered or networked communication.

- Misalignment of student needs to resource allotment.

- Lack of user-centric (student) research.

- If data was being collected, it was not being used.

- Unclear or inaccessible communications of available resources.

- Disconnected, hidden, and malfunctioning digital resources.

- Stigma and assumptions surrounding this topic, even within food resource organizations.

- Contradicting needs and goals among stakeholders.

Method: Touchpoint Analysis

Our team did our own analysis of the digital food insecurity resources and relevant student touch points. This exploration revealed a silo-ing of food resources and a lack of access, visibility, and engagement of student programs, preventing intended outcomes for student well-being. 

For example, some aspects of the student aid website were hard to find or inoperable, preventing students from donating meals to peers in need.

Co-Designing Criteria for Strategic Solutions

Criteria mapping.

During an interview with one subject matter expert on food insecurity, distribution, and pantry management, we performed a collaborative rank-order exercise to understand and prioritize the strategic steps that institutions need to take in order to holistically address student food insecurity.

Rank order exercise.

Method: Brainwriting

Six participants each record three ideas in five-minute rounds in a shared document or worksheet. At the end of each round, the document is “passed” to another participant, who can then build upon their colleagues' ideas.

Brainwriting and mapping to rank-order.

With our design criteria and goal in mind, we used a variation of the 6-5-3 brainwriting method to individually write down an exhaustive list of potential design interventions, products, and programs that could help address each of the rank-ordered categories. We voted on ideas with the most potential, represented as the soft pink sticky notes.

Method: Impact/Implementation Matrix

We then used an impact/implementation matrix to find areas of opportunity for project development. It was important that we design for a scaleable and approachable outcome that could be passed-on through peer-to-peer training. We acknowledged that too often these types of research projects integrate with an impacted community and then disappear after the engagement is over.

Using the matrix, we were able to clearly outline our self-defined project aim;

to create a transformative, co-development framework and service design concept to address student food insecurity on university campuses.

Impact/Implementation Matrix.

Method: Ecosystem Mapping

Ecosystem Map, Kumu. 

One of the final methods we used to synthesize our research was an ecosystem mapping exercise, combining all of our research to date into a visual artifact. We identified and documented the interconnected nature of Drexel stakeholders, places, objects/artifacts, and category's/functions related to the system of food insecurity on campus. The map was then translated into a digital diagram using kumu.

Key Recommendations

Centralize and make more accessible digital resources.
Many food resources are difficult to find. The un-intuitive navigation and keyword search do not immediately steer the user to helpful resources. Drexel's Marios Market Food Pantry does not show up when searching 'food insecurity resources', and is not listed as a food resource on the Office of Health and Counseling Services page.

Promote & communicate resources to engage students.
Increase engagement with student population through digital/visual communications and campaigns to raise awareness of food insecurity issues and resources (like food pantry, meal donations).

Create consistent, trusted engagement between students and faculty.
We found that students will confide in trusted adults. Safe environments and consistent engagement are imperative so that the university may better serve students in need.

Don’t assume you understand students and their needs, talk to them.
There are many causes of food insecurity, and often those we least suspect are affected by these issues. It is vital that administration check their biases and assumptions by engaging directly with the student population to gain a wider view of their lived experiences.

HCD and collaborative research methods are vital to designing solutions that support community needs.
It is essential that we bring together a wide variety of stakeholder views to really understand an issue, and to think beyond our current system. Human-centered design and research can bridge systemic gaps.

The Access, Visibility, and Engagement (AVE) Framework and ToolKit

The ‘AVE’ framework and toolkit equips decision makers with a problem-solving process, based on collectively incorporating the experiences and feedback of food insecure individuals in solutions, systemically addressing these issues in organizations or communities. The lenses of ‘Access’, ‘Visibility’, and ‘Engagement’ help orient leadership in empathetic co-evaluation of the current food insecurity offerings to derive solutions. The process of addressing and validating assumptions ensures that ideas generated are tested through participatory engagement with all relevant stakeholders.


Baiada Institute, The Social Impact Hub Scholarship Award 
The research findings were presented to key university stakeholders including the alumni board, deans, administrators, and the Social Impact Innovation Hub at Drexel’s Baiada Institute, Close School of Entrepreneurship. As a result, our team was one of 20% applicants selected to receive seed-funding, winning a 10-week ‘B-Corp’ entrepreneurial bootcamp at Baiada, to develop a business plan and evolve the project into a service product proposal. 

This experience infused equitable and sustainable ‘B-Corp’ certification practices into our research-backed service mission and vision. We developed a proposal for a free web-based service that offers the framework/toolkit, as well as workshops for student p2p trained engagement with institutions.

Based on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The short titles of the 17 SDGs are:
  • No poverty (SDG 1)
  • Zero hunger (SDG 2)
  • Good health and well-being (SDG 3)
  • Quality education (SDG 4)
  • Gender equality (SDG 5)
  • Clean water and sanitation (SDG 6)
  • Affordable and clean energy (SDG 7)
  • Decent work and economic growth (SDG 8)
  • Industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9)

Our team chose to focus on three of the SDGs, zero hunger, good health and well-being, and quality education.

© Mary Kahle, 2024