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Addressing Food Insecurity with Tech in the U.S.

In the wake of the pandemic, local agencies and nonprofit organisations reassess their approach to food insecurity. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 13.8 million people were food insecure at some point in 2020, and the nonprofit Feeding America estimates that economic hardships associated with COVID-19 could ratchet the 2021 figures to 42 million Americans.

To counter this troubling projection, cities like Atlanta and Boston are using GIS apps and SMS chatbots that tackle the issue of food access and better deliver information to those who are the most vulnerable which are newly food-insecure families.

Families who had never navigated this problem before were suddenly facing food insecurity. So we had all sorts of campaigns like billboards, TV and our SMS ‘Find Help’ map, to first gather information on where people were looking for food.

– Nick DiSebastian, Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) Marketing Data Analyst

The Help Map, uses cloud-based software to connect Greater Atlanta residents to three types of food assistance sites. These include over 700 partner agencies with regular schedules, mobile pantries that are open a couple of days a month and Georgia Department of Education meal sites, which specifically cater to children under 18.

The Help Map offered the opportunity to provide updated results during a dynamic time, when hours of operation and locations were constantly changing. Previously, residents would have to call into the office and have the representative look up the information manually. The phone-based method is still available as a backup, but now, the staff can check the map using the caller’s address and forward the exported data.

Improving the Help Map’s functionality is the next step. The data being collected by the platform only reflects usage, or how often the map is being accessed. A new tool that could provide more accurate information about the local food gap is already in the works.

Atlanta is in the midst of implementing a custom widget that is going to track where people are searching for help. During the pandemic, more families were food insecure but that they were also using the resources that the city provides. With the improved data, this new widget can better help fill the current food access gaps in the communities.

Boston also recently launched its own initiative, an SMS chatbot and food donation platform, to strengthen the citywide food access network. The SMS solution was specifically designed to improve access for those that do not have a stable connection to the internet. While improving the technological capabilities of the application was a consideration, the needs of the community came first.

The online platform and the chatbot aim to give city residents a centralised source for food resource information. The chatbot, originally introduced after the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, allowed residents to request a grocery delivery from the city’s emergency food assistance operations,

Boston residents can access the chatbot by texting the word FOOD to a specific number – they do not need to be connected to the internet to communicate with the tool. The online platform aims to reduce overall food waste by facilitating exchanges between those that have food available for donation and those that can distribute it, or need it themselves. Organisations and individuals that wish to join the network must create an account through this portal before they can post donations. Once posted, the donations can be claimed by others on the platform.

By reducing digital and language barriers, the Office of Food Access’ goal is to create a more equitable food system where everyone is welcome and can be connected with the resources they need.

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