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A new data tool could help local organizations tackle food insecurity

food insecurity help
Posted at 9:36 PM, Dec 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-20 11:12:23-05

COVINGTON, Ky. — Local food, health and data organizations are teaming up and using unique data-mapping software to try to tackle food insecurity in the Tri-state. The partnership was formed after the pandemic created a hunger crisis across the region.

“Your money runs out. It runs out and then, in a blink of an eye, you're hungry,” Megan Pickering said. She and her husband were both furloughed at the start of the pandemic. “You start thinking of last resorts. Should I go panhandle?”

Pickering said she turned to pantries for a lifeline. She wasn’t alone.

Food insecurity spiked during the pandemic. Someone is considered food insecure when they lack regular access to safe and adequate food. In 2019, almost 11% of Americans fell into this category, according to Feeding America. The organization estimates that number increased to almost 14% in 2020, which is about 10 million more people.

“What we found is that our efforts alone would not be sufficient to meet the needs of the community,” Michael Truitt, Freestore Foodbank’s Director of Community Partnerships and Programs, said. “As COVID hit, that was definitely a driver to get more people at the table.”

“Cincinnati has pockets of concentrated poverty and you know, we collectively have to do a much better job of getting support to folks who desperately need it,” Cincinnati city councilman Greg Landsman said.

Councilman Landsman and Freestore Foodbank were joined by partners including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, University of Cincinnati, Green Umbrella, Health Collaborative, UMC Food Ministry, La Soupe, Whole Again, Last Mile Food Rescue, Cincinnati Public Schools, Kroger Zero Hunger Zero Waste and Kroger’s data group 84.51°.

“We use publicly available data from the census and other government organizations to look at what the supply of food going into a neighborhood is versus what the demand is,” 84.51° data scientist Charles Hoffman said. He started tracking hunger on the neighborhood level. Then, he secured a free license from Esri, a company that specializes in GIS mapping software. Through Esri’s maps, Hoffman was able to lay out the data in a way that made the numbers easier to understand.

“We map it so that we can show it in a way that is digestible for city leadership and also community level and food organizations,“ he said.

At the start of COVID-19, the maps helped local organizations and schools better distribute emergency food. Now, the coalition is shifting to a broader goal: tackle overall food insecurity. The organizations are focused on the gap between how many meals a neighborhood needs and how many the neighborhood actually receives. The coalition will first try to reduce that gap by 10% in three pilot neighborhoods: Avondale, Lower Price Hill, and East Price Hill.

“If the meal gap in a specific neighborhood is 10,000 meals unfilled, then the goal would be to reduce that by 1,000 for that month,” Hoffman said. “When you think about that at scale, and the amount of meals that 10% represents, for a community the size of Cincinnati, you're talking about millions of meals over the course of a year.” Hoffman said the data process allows the coalition to not only see the need but accurately measure the effect of any intervention program.

The coalition is willing to fund ideas that could help reduce food insecurity in these pilot neighborhoods. Anyone interested in more information can contact Vivian Sevilla at