Technology Takes on Hunger

Interactive Web tools and virtual platforms help city officials break down barriers to food access.

by / October 27, 2014
The Baltimore Farmers Market and Bazaar is listed on the Baltimarket -- a virtual platform that promotes greater nutrition access, knowledge and self-efficacy -- as a place for residents to find healthy eating and food shopping options. Flickr/USDA

More than 23.5 million Americans live in areas without access to healthy and affordable foods, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service. Despite recent federal efforts to improve childhood nutrition, these designated areas — known as “food deserts” — persist due to a confluence of factors including systemic poverty, geographical distance to supermarkets and limited transportation options.

The USDA has made great progress in tackling this issue by launching an Internet-based mapping tool that presents a spatial overview of food desert neighborhoods. The Food Access Research Atlas opens up to a map of the United States that highlights clusters of food insecurity according to several indicators, including vehicle availability, public transportation access and average income level. Using the atlas, users can then pull up detailed information about a particular location by typing in a street address and viewing census-tract-level data at the neighborhood level.

Chicago has taken this initiative even further by integrating these data sets into its robust open data platform. With this project, Chicago has been able to increase government transparency and solicit citizen input regarding new partnership opportunities. This, in turn, has improved the effectiveness of the city’s efforts to reduce food insecurity, providing civic leaders with an easily accessible means to measure progress and identify priority areas that deserve even greater attention.

In the fight to eliminate food deserts, pinpointing neighborhoods that face the greatest barriers to food accessibility is an important first step. But as recent studies have shown, merely adding new grocery stores is insufficient to change people’s shopping and eating habits. In order to produce lasting behavioral change, city officials also need to confront two major structural challenges to food security: physical mobility and education. 

Baltimore has pioneered the latest solution by launching Baltimarket — a comprehensive suite of community-based food justice programs that uses a virtual platform to promote greater nutrition access, knowledge and self-efficacy. Launched in partnership with ShopRite grocery stores, Virtual Supermarket has received national acclaim for bringing healthy foods directly into the hands of Baltimore residents. Through this flagship program, shoppers can order groceries online either from a home computer or from designated library, public housing or low-income senior housing locations. Trained staff and volunteers are onsite to assist residents, and once an order is placed, customers can pick up their groceries at a convenient neighborhood delivery site at no additional cost. Participating shoppers receive cash bonuses for purchasing healthy foods; residents can also use the virtual portal to access healthy recipes, locate the nearest farmers market or sign up for affordable cooking classes.

As these examples make clear, the issue of food insecurity cannot be solved by one single entity or program. Especially in this era of permanent fiscal shortages, city officials need to pursue cross-sector partnerships and innovative data solutions in order to achieve greater efficiency and value in service delivery. In light of these persistent concerns, it is clear that new technology tools hold the key to identifying areas with the highest need, while maximizing the efficacy of ongoing efforts to fight hunger. 

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.