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Using Data to Address Hunger, Food Insecurity

Data is helping governments better deploy resources and connect at-risk communities with the food they need.

This story was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions

When we think of the challenges of hunger and food insecurity, we do not always think of data as a key to potential solutions. However, data has been closely linked with food security for centuries—Mesopotamians kept cuneiform records of crop production, and The (Old) Farmer's Almanac has tracked meteorological conditions affecting crops since the late 1700s.

Today, to address the persistent challenge of access to healthy food, governments face the challenge of identifying the people and places in need of interventions. And yet again, governments are relying on data to ensure food security, specifically to determine to whom they should deliver resources to effectively reduce hunger.

Jurisdictions such as the City of Baltimore and the State of Mississippi are using data to allocate resources to address hunger on the local and state level, and the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative is working to promote food security worldwide through increased data-sharing.

At the Local-Level: Data Visualization in Baltimore

Almost 25 percent of the City of Baltimore's population lives in food deserts. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) mapped this disparity in access to healthy food via its Maryland Food System Map project: an interactive, cloud-based, open-data mapping platform that plots production, distribution, processing, and consumption within Maryland's food system. CLF launched the original map in 2012 and redesigned the application on ArcGIS in 2017 to improve the UX.

To build this tool, CLF collected data from government databases, via partnerships with organizations, and through primary collection. The map includes over 175 data indicators, such as the location of supermarkets, food pantries, and farms, and the percent of the population in a region that is food insecure.

Nonprofits, researchers, students, and government officials alike use the tool to learn about and make decisions related to the food system.  According to Caitlin Fisher, CLF Program Officer and current manager of the map, "what we hope to have happen is that our users are able to use that information to create policies and programs grounded in data, and better understand what the public food system looks like, and its connection to public health and the environment." The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative uses the map to "improve access and health outcomes within the city's food deserts." For example, the organization has used the tool to determine where to target resources for B'More Fresh, a city initiative to expand and retain supermarkets and improve non-traditional grocery retail options. The Baltimore Orchard Project, a nonprofit that plants and cultivates orchards, has also used the tool to determine sites where it can build future orchards in food deserts.


Screenshot from the Maryland Food System Map 

At the State-Level: Interagency Data-Sharing in Mississippi

For the last several years, Mississippi's free or reduced-cost lunch program was only serving 70-80 percent of eligible students, failing to meet the federally mandated level of 95 percent. As a result, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) was under corrective action, meaning the department was required to develop and implement continuous improvement plans to bring service up to 95 percent.

To do so, MDE used interagency data-sharing to more effectively identify children eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. In 2017, the department implemented an interagency data-sharing agreement, working with the Department of Human Services (DHS) to match Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) data and student data, using students’ Social Security Numbers as a common field. This both removed the need for students or parents to file documents with the school, and removed a substantial reporting requirement from the schools to MDE by making the data-sharing automatic.

As a result, fewer students are going without food throughout the school day in Mississippi, and the state's matching compliance went up above the mandated 95 percent mark. Removing the need to file documents led to a streamlined process, and eliminated the stigma that previously kept students from applying. This streamlining freed up time and resources for the schools to spend in other ways.

At the Global Level: The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Initiative

On a global scale, there is 20 percent more food available than is needed worldwide, yet there are still over 800 million people around the world who go to bed hungry each night. This disparity can be partially attributed to a lack of capacity for climate forecasting, demand planning, and efficient water use in the agricultural industry.

To overcome this data gap, GODAN was formed to "support the proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible and usable to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring world food security." Born out of the 2012 G-8 Summit, the organization is currently composed of over 596 partners from governments, non-governmental organizations, and private sector companies, all of whom commit to host regular conversations with peer organizations to identify best practices and determine how to share agricultural data more effectively. GODAN itself also publishes discussion papers and case studies highlighting best practices in the field of open agricultural data.

Thanks to the increase in open agricultural data sparked by initiatives such as GODAN, a number of data-driven solutions to support the agricultural industry and increase food security have emerged. For example, GODAN has highlighted FarmerZone, "a collective open-source data platform for smart agriculture" based in India that is working to get quality agricultural data into the cloud, and develop sentinel sites linking farmers with data to help them make weather predictions, determine seed requirements, and use water efficiently,. Another open data initiative GODAN has highlighted, Farm-Oriented Open Data in Europe (FOODIE), integrates existing open agricultural datasets to enable precision agriculture, supporting farmers in their planning and decision-making. Finally, is an online data bank that has a section focused on open agricultural data, and that offers trainings on open source or free software that teach users to effectively connect to and analyze data.

By supporting initiatives such as GODAN, governments can promote the use of open data in agriculture, potentially leading to the creation of tools that can help farmers to reduce inefficiencies in crop production and contribute to increased food security worldwide.


Open data can support farmers—especially smallholder farmers—and food production in a variety of ways 

Building on these examples, local governments can leverage data-driven solutions such as data visualization to identify and address food deserts, interagency data-sharing to streamline service delivery application processes, and open data platforms to support the agricultural industry. Municipalities can support the development of tools such as FarmLogs, which empowers farmers to better analyze open data sets to make more data-driven decisions in agricultural production, and states can reference the USDA FNS Capacity Builder to identify gaps and opportunities to expand summer meal programs. While we have come a long way since the cuneiform records of Mesopotamian crop production, data is more important than ever as a key to unlocking the challenges we face around hunger and food insecurity, from the local to the global level.