Cities tackle food insecurity with technology
In the wake of the pandemic, food banks across the country have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of new clients, forcing local agencies and nonprofits to reassess their approach to food insecurity.
According to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 13.8 million people were food insecure at some point in 2020, and the nonprofit Feeding America estimates that the economic hardship associated with COVID-19 could push the 2021 numbers down to 42 million Americans.
To counter this disturbing projection, cities like Atlanta and Boston are using GIS applications and SMS chatbots that not only tackle the problem of access to food, but better provide information to those who are most vulnerable: the families newly exposed to food insecurity.
“Families who had never overcome this problem before were suddenly faced with food insecurity,” said Nick DiSebastian, marketing data analyst for the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). “So we ran all kinds of campaigns like billboards, television, and our ‘Find Help’ SMS card, to first collect information on where people were looking for food. “
The Aid Card, accessible on the ACFB website or by sending FINDFOOD to a specific number, uses cloud-based Esri software to connect residents of Greater Atlanta to three types of food aid sites. These include more than 700 partner agencies with regular hours, mobile pantries open a few days a month, and catering sites from the Georgia Ministry of Education, which cater specifically to children under the age of 18. 18 years old.
“We used Esri’s ArcGIS online platform, and in particular their Web AppBuilder, to improve the functionality of the help map where you can enter your address and set a search distance radius,” said DiSebastian. “It gave us the opportunity to deliver highly up-to-date results during a dynamic period, when hours of operation and locations were constantly changing. “
Previously, residents had to call the office and ask the representative to search for the information manually, DiSebastian said. The telephone method is still available as a backup, but now ACFB staff can verify the card using the caller’s address and transfer the exported data.
Boston also recently launched its own initiative, an SMS chatbot and food donation platform, to strengthen the city-wide food access network. Mayor Kim Janey and the Office of Food Access (OFA) unveiled these tools in September following the success of its first iteration, an emergency grocery delivery service that was operating during the height of the pandemic.
The SMS solution was specifically designed to improve access for those without a stable internet connection, said Catalina Prada Valderrama, Director of Outreach and Communications of OFA. While improving the technological capabilities of the app was a consideration, the needs of the community came first.
“We’re looking at how to integrate more stuff, but we didn’t want to impose the technology just to do it,” Prada Valderrama said. “It’s still a work in progress.”
In Atlanta, improving the functionality of the ACFB help card is the next step, DiSebastian said. At present, the data collected by the platform only reflects the use or frequency of access to the card. A new tool that could provide more precise information on the local food deficit is already under development.
“We are in the process of implementing a custom widget that will track where people are looking for help,” he said. “We saw a huge increase in use during the pandemic, which was both heartbreaking and encouraging as it meant more families were food insecure, but they were also using our resources. With the improved data, this new widget can better help us fill the [food access] gaps in our communities.
Shourjya Mookerjee is an associate editor for GCN and FCW. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, and has written for Vox Media, Fandom and a number of Capital Region media. He can be contacted at [email protected] – or you can find him ranting about sports, cinematography and the importance of local journalism on Twitter @byShourjya.