How Public Leaders are Using Data to End Food Insecurity and Hunger in Virginia and Beyond

 

How Public Leaders are Using Data to End Food Insecurity and Hunger in Virginia and Beyond

According to Feeding America, in 2019, there were nearly 800,000 food-insecure people in Virginia. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, this number grew an estimated 12.5%.

Food insecurity is the USDA’s measure of lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life. But could data be the key to finding solutions?

In the latest webinar in our Virginia Data Revolution Seminar Series, public leaders and innovators came together to discuss the most promising new developments in data collection, analysis, and sharing and how these efforts help ensure food security and nutrition.

At the state-level: cross-sector data sharing to bridge the food nutrition divide

Heidi Hertz, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry with the Commonwealth of Virginia, explained an important and early data initiative to reduce food insecurity, increase food access, and solve hunger for the citizens of Virginia.

As is the case in many states, multiple public and private sector organizations were involved in combatting food insecurity in Virginia. However, even as they worked towards the same goal, they collected and tracked different data points. To bridge these siloed groups and establish uniformity, the Commonwealth created the Council on Bridging the Food Nutrition Divide.

An early product of the council was Feed VA, which includes a GIS interactive mapping tool that overlays data sets from food access opportunities across the state. The tool highlighted approximately 38 food access projects, including school meal programs, summer food services, farmers’ markets that accept food stamps, and more.

“It was the first time we had aggregated those data sources,” said Hertz. “Once we started pulling data together, we coordinated with our partners to look at what the data was telling us and where the gaps in programs were, and then the problem solving began.”

Figure 1 – FeedVA GIS Map, % of Food Insecure Population Per County

Enhancing outcomes with a state and local data sharing framework

Fellow panelist, Jake Erlich, Director of Analytics with the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), agreed that matching government services to impactful results could only be achieved through the power of collective action.

“We need to change how we think about our allies in this. Data sharing is what will allow food relief organizations to take that next step into the 21st century and work collaboratively, because the fact is we’re here on the same mission. We’re better off if we can amplify each other’s voice, impact, best practices, food supply – everything.”

But data sharing is not an easy task and continues to be a work in progress for CAFB. The non-profit is the leading hunger-relief organization in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia and uses data to create a more holistic picture of food insecurity in the region.

“The pandemic was a rude awakening for many of us,” said Erlich. “We don’t have all of the data, information or the relationships we need to be as nimble and impactful as we can. It’s forced everyone to step outside their silos – including local and state governments. After all, we can’t do this work alone. We need to speak the same language. We need a data sharing framework to level set and start creating opportunities for us.”

Hertz concurred. “It’s taken us years to scratch the surface on what data services are available at the state level. Each agency has so much data. But, once we started looking at how the different data systems worked, the stories they were telling, and how they overlapped, we realized that we were onto something and that this exercise could be replicated at the local level.”

One tool that will assist these efforts is the Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger. Created by Virginia Department of Social Services and in collaboration with the Governor’s office and the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, the roadmap outlines a set of recommendations for achieving universal food security with practical programmatic and policy solutions. Through the initiative, Hertz and her department are working towards a shared set of indices so that continuity can be maintained from state to local, local to state.

Using the right data points to make an invisible problem more visible

But as more organizations seek to put data at the heart of decision making, what data points are important?

Erlich’s team captures and tracks upwards of 100 different data points; even then, the food bank is still operating with an incomplete jigsaw. “In conversations I have with local governments, there is often a disconnect or misalignment between what non-profit service-oriented providers want to collect and what state and county governments are prioritizing. To me this all comes down to who is your intended audience, and what are your goals for them.”

Erlich stressed the importance of understanding the makeup of the food insecure population – where it exists, what it looks like, who is being served and who is not. To help make an invisible problem more visible, CAFB developed a Hunger Heat Map. The interactive map reveals the breadth of the problem and measures the impact that CAFB and its partners have in its communities.

Figure 2 – Capital Area Food Bank Hunger Heat Map

Even with the insights that the map gives, the use of the data can vary significantly. “We have multiple audiences, all trying to achieve something,” said Erlich. “Whether it’s finding a food pantry or equipping local government with information needed to aid in emergency planning, we all think about data differently and that’s what makes a data sharing framework so complex. How do you meet everyone’s needs? What data is needed to achieve these things? Where are service gaps? There are tons of data points, but it’s a matter of determining what we need today and what we need to work towards tomorrow.”

Put the client front and center

In conclusion, the panel agreed that putting the client at the center of all they do is key to keeping the conversation going, being goal-oriented, and ultimately, with so many data points to select from, reducing data paralysis.

If you have ideas or suggestions for future Virginia Data Revolution events or would like to be added to the invite list, please email  and we’ll be in touch.