For over 40 years, Feeding America has been working to tackle the hunger crisis in the US, a mission that’s altered across the decades. Today, according to the USDA, more than 38 million people in the USA, including 12 million children, fall into the category of ‘food insecure’.
That’s a total that’s been made worse by the COVID crisis, which has particularly impacted families with children and communities of color. Last year, the Feeding America network of over 200 food banks across the country served 6.6 billion meals.
Today Feeding America is a massive organization, the largest hunger relief network in the US, with 60,000 partner agencies sitting alongside the food banks, all community-based and mostly with limited tech capability. That’s an issue when it comes to analytics, says Feeding America President and COO Katie Fitzgerald:
We are this immense network that needs to understand data to understand where food insecurity is, how we meet people, where they are, and how do we move food around the country in the most effective way...Up until the time the pandemic started, we were about the business of getting food to people, but we were doing that with very limited data systems and very little visibility into both our inventories nationally.
There were two big capability gaps, she adds:
One was no real time data. So when the pandemic hit, we were fielding calls from all of our food banks, and literally worried that food banks were going to run out of food. We had no collective system for seeing the inventories across the country. All we could do was get proxy data, anecdotal data, pull data from them. So we just felt like we were operating with two hands behind our back.
In addition, we, as a system, had not developed client service insight data collectively. In addition to [knowing] where the food was, we didn't know who was showing up at distributions, what their issues were, how often they were coming. So we were experiencing this onslaught of demand and need to see our inventories and really not able to do it.
That’s a position that’s not sustainable given the growing need for services such as those provided by Feeding America. To address this, the organization is now working with Tableau to create what Fitzgerald calls “a culture of data” where everyone, not just data analysts, can gain insights to generate operational improvements and efficiencies:
When people can see the data, when they can see its use and its value to them to make decisions on the ground about where to put food, who's been served in their community and who's not, it just creates a culture of trust that has really started to create a great sea change in our ability to achieve our mission.
[We are] able, for the first time really, in our network to see our community, understand where food insecurity is the greatest, what populations, what neighbourhoods, what communities are experiencing that, and the extent to which our food distribution is meeting people where the need is the greatest. We were unable to do that before the pandemic.
Inevitably, it’s a work in progress. Fitzgerald admits that this data culture is not yet at scale, but says that adoption of the tech is a major priority, with the organization working hard at expanding its use. And there are other aspirations beside being able to understand supply and demand in real time, she adds:
It is also about us being able to do forward planning. Our whole value proposition is based on donated food and when we can't get enough donated food, we have to purchase food. In order to get the best bang for our buck, we need to do that collectively as best we can.
So [it’s about] the ability to do forward planning and help food banks in every community understand what they're going to need and expect over the next six months over the year, based on AI-type data. I'm not at a data person, but I know the modelling out there is going to be just a tremendous unlock in our ability to anticipate need, plan for it and really deliver value for the donor dollars that fund our mission.
Data is critical to keeping the work of Feeding America relevant and possible, she concludes:
If we don't know where the need is in communities, if we can't quickly see and understand the extent to which we're meeting it, we're really not an acceptable system for the mission that we're trying to advance.
This mission has grown up over about 40 years in this country. It started as like a B2B kind of business - a food bank, serving local food pantries, meal programs, and really just ordering what they need.
But now we are in a mission that has evolved to where people are at the center of what we do. So we have to have the data systems that allow us to see people in their communities and what they need. For us, data is absolutely core to the future of the charitable food system in America.