Interview with Barry Richmond Scholarship Winner Mariana M. Torres Arroyo
Mariana M. Torres Arroyo
The Barry Richmond Scholarship Award was established in 2007 by isee systems to honor and
continue the legacy of its founder, Barry Richmond. The award is presented annually to a
deserving Systems Thinking/System Dynamics practitioner whose work demonstrates a desire to
expand the field or to apply it to current social issues.
Congratulations to Mariana M. Torres Arroyo for winning the 2022 Barry Richmond Scholarship
Award for her work “How New York’s Food Donation Policies Might [or Might Not] Improve Fresh
Produce Rescue and Reduce Wasted Food?”. It was wonderful to meet Ms. Torres Arroyo and
recognize her accomplishment in person at the ISDC in July. We were able to sit down with
her recently to learn more about her and her work.
isee: First of all, congratulations on winning the Barry Richmond Scholarship!
Mariana: Thank you, Thank you so much. I was very excited about it and being able to
go to the conference in Germany.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to the University of Albany.
I am originally from Mexico. I studied there for my bachelor's in food engineering and my
masters. I then applied to the University at Albany for the school of public health for my PhD.
Had you ever been to the ISDC before?
Last year, I presented a paper in the student-organized colloquium. This year was the first
time I joined the conference, and I am so happy that I did!
Let’s segue to your project, reducing food waste. What made you focus on that issue?
I was trying to find an intersection between the environment and public health. I was trying
to see the overlaps with public health. I was interested in food waste material and found
several projects in the US working on food systems, and the one I chose focused on food rescue.
This is such an important topic right now. A lot of food goes to waste, and, at the same time,
there are people that need not only food but food with nutritional quality.
Did you use dynamic modeling in previous projects? What drew you to use it on this project?
This was my first project that used system dynamics. I started working on it while doing other
types of analysis and participating in different phases of a bigger project focused on food
recovery and redistribution in New York’s capital region. I was making participant surveys
and analyzing data through typical methods or qualitative analysis, and then I got interested
in looking for any other tool or framework that could be useful to see the interconnections
within a system. To see the problem as a whole, rather than just having the data from surveys
or the data from the region. My advisor, Beth Feingold, put me in touch with system dynamicist
Luis Luna-Reyes, who is a professor at the Rockefeller college at UAlbany. He started mentoring
me and providing me with materials that I needed for my workshops with the food rescue organizations.
It looks like you started this project right at the beginning of the pandemic. Do you feel the
pandemic affected food waste and food rescuing?
That was not a direct part of the model I have been working on, but I know from projects
conducted by other students and professors that the pandemic caused changes in food waste.
I collaborated in a project with Dr. Christine Bozlak, where we created a survey for local
organizations and some reported changes in food
waste. We focused on what aspects of COVID-19 and its disruptions led to more or less waste
in organizations. Several policies like Nourish NY were set in place during the pandemic,
as there was a concern about food going to waste because there were no outlets, such as
restaurants, open. There were reports of farmers leaving crops in the field or dumping milk.
There was a need to support the agriculture sector, the outlets for this food, and people
struggling more with food insecurity, which increased in both low income and minority
populations. Policies were put in place to help address those, so we used the model to
better understand how they were working.
While you were building the model, did you ever have a breakthrough moment or a moment
when you felt like you were on the right track with your research?
It was when I saw that the stakeholders – executives at food banks and food rescue organizations –
were interested in the model and its results. They provided feedback that they were excited and
even emotional about what was going on in the model. I was thinking, “OK, it makes sense to do
this because it matters. It matters to people.”
What are you hoping the stakeholders will be able to do with this information and what
are the next steps in your project?
I am actually not sure what the stakeholders could do with this specific model. I know making
an interface for them to play with the model would be another step, and we would need funding
and time to complete that. As of now, the whole process of having workshops for stakeholders
and showing them the results of the simulation has been like a conversation with them. They
are using this information in their daily work; it’s a way we can collaborate and keep the
conversation going. I would really love to say they are going to just use the model or do
something with it, but I am not sure of their direction. For now, I am still working to
finish the model, making sure it’s robust and preparing it for publication.
What is next for you? What is your next project?
I really want to continue to work on food systems. Right now, we are about to run some
interviews related to the policies I mentioned earlier. One later project would be trying
to use different methods to find ways to better see the overlaps between health and the
environment. There are limited resources and so many environmental and health problems.
We need to find ways to focus not only on the small problems but on the big picture. I
feel learning more about system dynamics and using those tools would help.