January 4, 2019

Using math to fight food insecurity

At its most rudimentary, hunger is a feeling that every human understands. So when Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Phong Le ’03 wanted to weave civic engagement into a portion of his Data Analytics for Sustainability course and make math more accessible, he looked to Cass Freedland, Community-Based Learning Program director, for guidance. She suggested that he build on the relationship that the college has with the Student Support Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Baltimore County students living in poverty by providing food, other basic necessities, and advocacy support.

Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, Student Support Network president, visited his class at the beginning of the semester to personally share the mission of the group and discuss the broader scope of food insecurity in the county surrounding Goucher’s campus. The issue directly impacts nearly 50,000 local children. According to Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), 43.7 percent of all BCPS students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“Nutrition and food accessibility are horribly under-studied in Baltimore County,” says Le, making the Goucher-Student Support Network project one of the first to do so.

The Goucher students utilized the Baltimore Food Store study survey instrument, which was developed as part of a Johns Hopkins University project to survey food insecurity in Baltimore City. Using this particular survey tool was important to Le. “I love that this was developed in Baltimore for Baltimore.”

Not only is the collection, analysis, and communication of the data a teaching tool for the mathematics students, but Le says that this project also gives his students the opportunity to navigate group dynamics and build connections while working with one another.

Students surveyed more than 50 food stores in the Loch Raven, Towson, and Parkville High School areas. The students used the survey data, along with census data, to analyze the results. They drew their own conclusions and interpretations.

Le and his students had the chance to see the Student Support Network in action at Loch Raven High School and meet with some of the volunteers working to address food insecurity there. At the end of the semester, the students met with the community partner again to present their final results.

These hands-on learning experiences are the things Le loves most about his work. He is hopeful that the data collected and analyzed by him and his students will be able to help the Student Support Network secure grants and act as an advocacy tool.

“Beyond the learning goals of the class, supporting local organizations is meaningful work,” says Le, who has a strong history of connecting his work to support nonprofit organizations, including Charm City Care Connection and TALMAR.

He now hopes to build on the Baltimore County food insecurity project in this data course each semester while engaging a new set of students in mathematics as they methodically survey more and more of the county to gain a comprehensive understanding of food accessibility in the region.