Hillary Quarles headshot

PhD Candidate Hillary Quarles Receives Grant to Elevate Research to Address Food Insecurity

March 27, 2024

Hillary Quarles was awarded $21,882 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement grant to complete her dissertation project, “What’s for Dinner? Platformization of Denver’s Urban Food Systems.” Quarles’ project is funded by the NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences now through February 2026. 

Quarles holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Yale University and a Master of Landscape Architecture from Harvard University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Geography, Planning, and Design at CU Denver furthering her research in urban agriculture, food systems, food justice, and public spaces under the advisement of Professor of Geography and the Environment Gregory Simon.

What is Food Technology Platformization?

The way we access food has changed dramatically in the past decade. With platform technologies taking over our food systems, we can now access a wide variety of cuisines, price points, and nutrition. Platforms like DoorDash, Instacart, and Fresh Food Connect are changing food access, and social media networks are saturated with advertising and influencer marketing telling us how and what to eat.

Using the NSF funds, Quarles will explore her hypothesis, “that platform technology reshapes how people think about food, directs the flow of food in ways that privilege chain retail, changes what and when people eat, and increases food insecurity by increasing access to convenience food in low-income areas.”

“Platform technology is used throughout the urban food system, enabling food to move in novel ways,” explained Quarles. “This movement often distributes food unevenly, creating food and health inequities across the city.”

Platformization: The Expansion of Choice and Limitation of Access

Through the pursuit of her PhD, Quarles is exploring food platformization through multiple disciplines – science and technology studies, food studies, and urban geography – to observe how platform technology is changing our relationships with food.

“People in cities experience both tremendous choice and limits in what foods they want and have access to,” said Quarles. “Structural inequities enable some to eat local, organic greens while others only have access to fast food restaurants and convenience stores. But food choices are not just about proximity to food or even the ability to purchase it, they are further complicated by convenience, taste, and daily habits.”

“Understanding the urban food system requires an examination of how people choose what to eat, how food moves through the city, and how people incorporate food into their daily practices,” Quarles continued. “Today, these choices, movements, and practices are often influenced by platform technology.”

Denver’s Food System

Denver serves as a focal point for Quarles research, benefitting from the city’s long-term commitment to improving health and equity in the urban food system. Denver is one of only 27 U.S. cities with a department dedicated to urban food systems. In the 2016 City of Denver baseline food report, Denver’s Food System, the city noted that it was supporting over 2,200 food system businesses, employing over 56,000 workers, and generating $7 billion in economic activity. However, one in six residents were food insecure, and 49% of low- to moderate-income neighborhoods did not have convenient access to grocery stores.

And now, eight years and a pandemic later, the expansion and adaptation of food platform technology has created new challenges to food insecurity.

“How do these changes affect food access, and how many of them can be tied to the growth of platform technology, such as third-party food delivery? Denver is a great place to ask these important questions,” said Quarles. “The city’s ongoing commitment to understanding and improving the food system, combined with its past efforts, provide a unique opportunity to investigate how platform technologies shape both food access and food practices today.”

With the grant in place, Quarles will soon begin analyzing  Denver’s food system through geospatial mapping of neighborhood food land use and demographics.