Big Data Helps Show a Different Face of Hunger in America

Mapping food insecurity in Washington, D.C., could change the way food banks serve those in need.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Sep 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When Michael Hollister was tasked with creating a hunger heat map for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., the initial hot spots were right where everyone expected—the District’s poor 7th and 8th wards. But when the map, which showed areas of need, was overlaid with a second map based on pounds of food delivered by the Food Bank and its 500 partners, colors rearranged and a new landscape took form. Virginia’s Fairfax County, frequently ranked near the top on lists of America’s wealthiest counties, changed color—there were hungry people there too.

“People assume there’s not a lot of poverty and not a lot of need there,” Hollister said. “But what we found when making these maps are pockets of poverty sprinkled throughout the entire Fairfax area.” Parts of Reston in particular—named No. 7 on CNN Money’s “Best Places to Live” list in 2012—became a hot spot.

Thanks to the dynamic tool, the food bank could reorient its hunger-relief efforts, putting a tighter focus on who was in need and where they lived—namely, the suburbs. This week, the Capital Area Food Bank made its heat maps publicly available, putting a face on need in the region by revealing who the hungry are and where they live.

According to new USDA data released Thursday, food insecurity was at 14 percent last year, remaining largely unchanged from 2013 but still down from a record high in 2011. But while the increase in hunger and enrollments in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the wake of the Great Recession have subsided, the problem has not gone away altogether—and the story the colored blotches on the map tell about hunger in the U.S. capital expand well past the District, Maryland, and Virginia.

“The perception of the suburbs is that it’s where the middle-class and affluent families get to have access to safe streets and schools and a lawn and not have poor people near them,” Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the suburbanization of poverty, told The Washington Post. “But that perception has been outdated for a while.”

In 2013, 12 percent of suburban households nationally were food insecure, according to the USDA. In the United States, more than half of hungry households are white, and two-thirds of those with children have at least one working adult. So while food insecurity rates are the highest in rural and urban areas, there is still need in areas like D.C.’s suburbs—it just isn’t always immediately apparent.

This isn’t distended-belly or rural Appalachian hunger, reporter Tracie McMillan told WHYY’s Radio Times. “It looks very different from what we think about when we think about hunger. There are advocates in the South who talk about the ‘SUV poor.’ These are families that have taken on a middle-class lifestyle and then something falls by the wayside, a job, and they find themselves food insecure. So you have folks who still have their house and their car, but to keep those payments made, they can’t necessarily get food.”

That car is key, Jody Tick of the Capital Area Food Bank explained. In suburban and rural areas without public transportation, kids don’t have a way to get around when their parents have the car at work—or when there’s no car at home at all. It’s not as simple as walking a matter of blocks to a community center or taking the Metro a couple stops to get a free lunch or a backpack of groceries from the type of program that helps feed kids when school is out of session. Working with several partners this summer, a retrofitted school bus delivered summer meals in Virginia’s Prince William County to “deep pockets of need,” including a mobile home park. “They [the kids] were waiting for the bus every day,” Tick said.

The success of the bus program is just one example of how addressing suburban hunger requires different tactics than rural or urban hunger. “The map has informed every single one of these new hunger solutions,” Tick said, making them accountable to their efforts, targeting their resources, and showing impact.

Other food banks and nonprofits in unrelated fields have taken note. Hollister has been fielding regular requests from groups interested in doing something similar—or the very same thing—for other communities. And with the field of geographical information technology developing rapidly, the resources are more accessible and affordable than ever, and more organizations are using data to drive decisions and results, Tick said.

“I think we’re relatively progressive to be so data-driven and so thoughtful about how we allocate our resources, and it’s a moral imperative that we do so,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a hunger heat map across the entire United States? It could help inform national donors, it could help inform national policy—who knows?”