Home PublicationsCommentary How Big Data Helps Put Food on the Table

How Big Data Helps Put Food on the Table

by Joshua New
Food donation

“A chicken in every pot” has been a central tenet of the American dream since Herbert Hoover promised it in his 1928 presidential campaign, but for the 14 percent of American households, that during at least one point throughout the year lacked the resources to feed all of their members, this promise is off the table this promise is off the table. Additionally, 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts—areas without ready access to nutritious and affordable food, which can place entire communities at risk of poor nutrition and lead to high rates of diabetes, obesity, and other diet-related health problems. Fortunately in recent years, the public and private sectors have been able to use data to more effectively provide food aid to those in need.

For many people who are food insecure or living in food deserts, charities, food banks, and other food aid programs may provide their only opportunity for a nutritious meal. Thanks to new data-sharing platforms, these programs can facilitate a greater amount of food donation and more effectively provide food to people in need. A nonprofit called the Matching Excess and Needs for Sustainability (MEANS) Database has developed an online service to make it easy for anyone to donate food by publicly posting information about the type and amount of food they have available. Nearby food banks and pantries are instantly notified via email when food becomes available, and if they can accept this food, they can claim it and contact the donor to coordinate a pickup. And whenever the MEANS Database facilitates a transaction, it provides donors with the necessary data for them to claim their food donations as a tax deduction, incentivizing donation. Startups CropMobster and Food Cowboy have developed smartphone applications that use a similar approach to connect food wholesalers, farms, grocery stores, and restaurants with nearby charities and food aid programs that are willing to collect excess or unwanted food that would otherwise end up in a dumpster due to the logistical challenges of coordinating food donation.

The effectiveness of such food aid programs rely on their ability to reach communities in need, and mapping technologies have enabled civil society groups to target these communities with a higher degree of accuracy than ever before. In early 2015, the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Area Food Bank combined data published by other nonprofits, internal records, and Census data to map where people needed food aid versus where the the food bank and its partners operated. The map revealed that many suburban locations had substantial food needs, but went unserved by the food bank because it did not anticipate the level of food need in areas traditionally thought of as wealthier. Now, Capital Area Food Bank uses this data to guide its operations and provide aid to these hard to access areas.

To address the underlying problems that can contribute to food insecurity and food deserts, government administrators have recognized the value of of publishing data and tools that can help members of the public and private sectors take action. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service analyzed Census data to map all of the food deserts across the United States in its Food Access Research Atlas and published an accompanying application programming interface to make it easy for users to perform their own analysis. Similarly, the City of Baltimore partnered with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, an initiative to research food and environment-related public health issues, to create the Food Environment Map, which visualizes food deserts in Baltimore using a methodology specifically tailored to consider unique accessibility problems posed by urban environments. And in 2013 Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel published previously unreleased data about food resources on the city’s open data portal to support civil society efforts to provide food aid and to allow the public to monitor the city’s progress towards its goal of eliminating food deserts by 2020.

While many Americans still struggle to access affordable and nutritious food, big data increasingly helps civil society, governments, and businesses become more effective at providing relief to those in need. As examples of organizations using data in innovative ways to provide valuable benefits continue to emerge, policymakers should encourage  the public and private sectors to tap the power of data to solve some of society’s toughest problems.

Image; flickr user Shawna Pierson

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