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GIS Tech’s Role in the Fight Against Food Insecurity

With Thanksgiving days away, GIS technology has been helping cities and local organizations understand how and where food insecurity impacts residents in their communities so they can prepare accordingly.

A green apple sits on code displaying 1s and 0s.
Local governments and community organizations can benefit from using geographic information system (GIS) technology to better understand where food insecurity impacts residents, ultimately using that knowledge to inform their response.

Food insecurity is a global issue, but technology and data will play a crucial role in addressing it, experts say. Efforts to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of this work with technology range from chatbots to artificial intelligence.

As explained in an email by Emily Swenson, nonprofit program lead for Esri, GIS technology enables organizations to use map-based visualizations to communicate their work, improve understanding of need in a specific area to make operations more equitable, measure impact over a period of time, and mobilize volunteers for food deliveries.

“GIS is a system that reminds us how interconnected everything is — both the challenges as well as the solutions,” Swenson said.


As an example, Cincinnati partnered with 84.51° — a retail data science and insights company — and Cincinnati Children’s — which focuses on children’s health — to create a map that would illustrate food needs during the pandemic.

The map was first launched in 2020 using the data expertise of those at 84.51°, data supplied by the city of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s, and Esri’s software. The aim is to help individuals locate food assistance centers near their residences.

“The human capacity to serve is powerful, and it’s been on full display during this crisis,” said Cincinnati Councilmember Greg Landsman in the announcement. “Our partners needed a way to bring everything they’re doing together, in a single place, to better provide food and fill service area gaps.”

As explained by 84.51° Data Scientist Charles Hoffman, the maps used today were created to better understand need. The data team used census tract-level data to map poverty in the region, then layered other important data such as the availability of nutrition-related programs in specific neighborhoods on top of that.

“The key is to think of what your vulnerable demographic is, plot it on a map so that you have situational awareness, and then start plotting your supply over top of that,” he explained.

He added that this type of platform is something that is both scalable and replicable. In its simplest form, looking at poverty data and resources available, this could be replicated in other cities. In addition, the data could be used to help map out the need and availability of other resources that could help support vulnerable populations.

Image shows map of Cincinnati with green and red to show emergency food support overlayed against childhood poverty.
Map shows emergency food support overlayed against childhood poverty to identify areas of concentrated poverty that were outside of 1 mile from a food site, informing the direction of resources to those underserved areas.
Image from dashboards developed by 84.51 using Esri’s GIS and mapping technology.

By aggregating the data in one place, it creates a base-level understanding of challenges that allows stakeholders to focus on solutions.

Michael Truitt, director of community partnerships and programs for Freestore Foodbank, explained that this comprehensive view of data has helped to assess and alleviate need accordingly.

Having clear data also helps organizations like Freestore Foodbank to better plan for spikes in demand, such as those that occur around major holidays like Thanksgiving, or for the need for culturally specific foods.

And while in some ways food insecurity has begun to return to normal levels following a COVID-19 pandemic high, food costs have risen dramatically, forcing some into food insecurity for the first time.

“Now, we can really leverage that data to be able to serve more people more effectively,” he explained.


Across the country in California, Feeding America Riverside | San Bernardino (FARSB) is also working to tackle food insecurity through mapping and data.

The goal of this organization is to help alleviate hunger in Riverside and San Bernardino counties through partnerships with community organizations, schools and public-sector agencies using programs that include food delivery, assistance getting connected to services and more.

The turn to GIS mapping as a tool to support the work of the organization’s Homebound Emergency Relief Outreach (HERO) program came about during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling the FARSB team to use location intelligence through Esri’s mapping platform to streamline food deliveries. The data was acquired when participants in the program signed up, explained Programs Director Jackie Arias.

Arias explained that GIS and mapping has played a positive role in the organization’s efforts, specifically in helping see where groups in need are and how to target them, which has specifically helped the organization serve those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic because more people than ever were homebound.

Arias did note that there is a potential to expand GIS tech to other programs in the future.

Supply chain challenges have also played a role in the food distribution and assistance for those in need this year, Arias said. For example, a shortage in turkey supply led the organization to opt to distribute hams instead for the holidays this year. And while the busy season for this organization will last into January, leveraging data helps prepare for an increase in demand.


GIS and mapping technology has also been used in Atlanta, as a community food bank there has leveraged data in collaboration with partner agencies and the counties in the area. The city has now been using mapping technology for several years.

Screenshot of the Get Help map page on the Atlanta Community Food Bank website. Purple points show food pantries in the area.
Screenshot of the Get Help map page on the Atlanta Community Food Bank website.
(Atlanta Community Food Bank)

As stated by Ed Westreicher, director of marketing and communication with Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB), the organization uses Esri’s ArcGIS for its Help Map, which allows people in the area to input their address, select the distance range for their needs, and they will find nearby partner food pantries that meet their needs.

For those who do not have access to the Internet, Westreicher noted that a separate system exists through which individuals can use SMS texting to get that information in English or Spanish.

Better planning can help the organization ensure that those in need can get the resources they need within a timely manner — and the holiday season is no exception; Westreicher noted that sourcing for turkeys started in the first quarter of 2022.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity needs have shifted dramatically. Westreicher cited an increase from roughly 700,000 people estimated to be food insecure to closer to a million within the 29-county service area the organization serves — a 60 percent increase in food distribution from prior to the pandemic.

This has decreased slightly, and now distribution levels are between 30 percent and 35 percent more food on a monthly basis than prior to the pandemic. Some factors that have helped alleviate the need include pandemic relief funds, the universal free lunch program, and the child tax credit. But as the relief slows and inflation has led to a significant increase in food costs, the need is still there.

“We’re seeing the hunger crisis take on a different shape and form, if you will,” explained ACFB’s CIO Sharay Erskine. Through data and mapping, she said the organization can better target areas within the community that are in need with solutions like opening up more pantries or increasing outreach.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.