How food banks use data to balance services on Thanksgiving — and year round
This week, families across the country are stocking up at grocery stores and preparing traditional dishes like turkey and stuffing for one of the most popular food-centric holidays: Thanksgiving. But for the 42 million Americans experiencing food insecurity, the holiday festivities look much different.
That’s why city food banks from coast to coast have stepped up their services in recent weeks and are working to provide special holiday items to those who would otherwise go without.
"Hunger does not increase because of the holidays and unfortunately it doesn't decrease in the summer," said Hilary Salmon, director of marketing and communications for Capital Area Food Bank, which serves the greater Washington, DC region. "It’s just that everyone is really focused on food at this time of the year — high-income, low-income and everybody in between — because food is such an important part of the holidays."
Most of food banks' donations for the year come in during the two-month holiday season – roughly November 1 through December 31. “There are two times of year when we actually spend some dollars on advertising,” said Paul Gaither, director of marketing and communications at Central Texas Food Bank, which serves Austin and surrounding areas. One of those is summer, when need is high because students who receive reduced or free lunches and breakfasts at school are at home and may not have the means to eat regularly. The other is "during the holiday season when people start thinking about charity a bit more," he said.
Many food banks work with partners to collect some of the most requested holiday-specific foods, such as turkey or chicken, stuffing, cranberry sauce and green beans. "We really try to make sure we have these holiday foods on hand around Thanksgiving and Christmas ... so that people we serve can enjoy a holiday dinner with their families just like all of us are going to," said Chaundra Luckett, public relations manager for the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "It’s important to them because if we don’t support them, then who will?"
Boosting nutritional value
During the holidays and throughout the year, more city food banks are moving past the focus on just getting people fed and are including a goal of providing healthy foods. "There was a time when you could come to a food bank… and [the food] wasn’t necessary healthy or something a family could make a complete meal with,” said Ryan Hoyle, chief development officer at Gleaners Community Food Bank, which serves Detroit and southeastern Michigan. "We have made great strides as an industry in moving away from giving families any food that is readily available and really putting a strong focus on healthy, nutritious food.”
"It’s important to them because if we don’t support them, then who will?"
Public Relations Manager, Atlanta Community Food Bank
That means offering more fresh, unprocessed items as well as those lower in sodium and sugar. “We're not the food police, everyone deserves a treat,” Salmon said. “[But] the people that we serve are hearing from their doctors that they have to change their diets… [and] we feel we have a real moral imperative to provide balanced food."
She noted that 47% of the people served by the Capital Area Food Bank have high blood pressure or live with someone who does, and 22% have diabetes or live with someone who does. Those health problems and obesity are also on the radar at the St. Louis Area Foodbank, which especially works with partners to bring in seasonal fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat, said communications manager Ryan Farmer.
"There’s any number of health-related issues when it comes to low-income families not knowing where their next meal is coming from, often [eating] the least expensive food, which often is highly processed. It's on us whenever possible to bring in healthier food to make for a more balanced meal," Farmer said.
Combating hunger with data and innovation
One of the ways that food banks have achieved success in transitioning to a nutritionally-focused model is by an increase in and better use of data. That’s how workers track changing community needs, both in terms of the number of people served and the types of foods needed. Food banks' distribution plans are "not a shot in the dark," Luckett said. "We spend a lot of time doing research and on the ground using data to figure out our food insecurity numbers. They change from year to year."
At the Capital Area Food Bank, "we're working toward being a 21st century food bank,” Salmon said. “We're relying more and more on data to improve our work.” Two ways they do that is through updating inventory with healthy foods and by using the food insecurity heat map they made of the greater DC area.
"[The map] layers distribution with need... and it exposes gaps between what is needed and what we’re providing," Salmon said. "We might be pouring a lot of resources into one area, but there might be one of higher need. This map helps us to look at that and who we're partnering with and where we're bringing trucks of food."
Employees at the St. Louis Area Food Bank rely on the local information from Feeding America's nationwide food insecurity map to make sure it's serving people both in cities and rural areas. "[We] make sure we're being equitable with our distribution," Farmer said. "We look at county data, but we're starting to have staff look further at where the population pockets are, and are we meeting our goal of pounds per person living in poverty." For example, the employees check if a food desert exists more than half an hour away from a distribution center, and then the food bank can reassess how it gets food into that area. "We have people taking classes ... on data programs so they can look at whether there are areas that we could be serving better," Farmer says.
The Central Texas Food Bank is using the data it collects to determine where to position mobile food banks, "which is a semi that we load up and we take into food deserts where there might not be one of our partner agencies," said Gaither. "We’re having to constantly look at who we’re serving through those... then we’ll reassess" locations and other aspects of food distribution."
"We have to lean on each other. That is the premise of what this country was built on."
Public Relations Manager, Atlanta Community Food Bank
Gleaners Community Food Bank is forging partnerships with other businesses in southeastern Michigan that will provide funding for food insecurity-focused research projects. Gleaners will use the funding to purchase food, which will "be given to target populations that are important to our partners. And then we’re going to study — using data — the impact food has on other challenges," Hoyle said.
For example, Gleaners has partnered with a Detroit hospital to study how food insecurity impacts both medical costs and health. If the research definitively exposes that food secure families are healthier, then "it becomes good business sense to ensure that [hospital] patients who are treated are provided with medical prescriptions and prescriptions for food," Hoyle said. "Pushing out pounds per year doesn't tell you impact. Creating programming that looks at the community impact is the missing piece to creating food secure families."
Through these innovative programs and others, food banks are working with partners to combat food insecurity at the holidays and every day. "We have to lean on each other. That is the premise of what this country was built on," said Luckett.
Follow Katie Pyzyk on Twitter