How Data Analytics is Helping to Solve Food Insecurity + Resources to Address It at Home

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development identifies 17 goals in its worldwide “blueprint for peace and prosperity” — the second of which is eliminating hunger. Experts believe that data analytics will be instrumental to achieve these goals, including the end of global food insecurity.

list of UN Sustainable Development Goals

The Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations (FAO) estimates that 8.9 percent of the world’s population is hungry, and the World Food Programme (WFP) reports that acute food insecurity reached a five-year high in 2020, accelerated by factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic disruptions. The challenge certainly is complicated but, equipped with sound data, scientists and researchers are using data analytics, AI, and other technologies to help make healthy food more accessible for all.

How are countries and companies using data analytics to identify food deserts, fix supply chain inefficiencies, and reduce food waste?  Read on to explore this important topic and access some vital resources that connect those confronting food insecurity to better nutrition.

What Is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), is an economic and social condition in which people lack consistent access to enough food to live a healthy life. It is different from hunger, which is a physiological condition that can result from food insecurity.

The USDA assesses differing levels of food insecurity, from marginal, which can prompt anxiety about a potential food shortage, to very low, which represents a disrupted diet and low food intake. According to the USDA, 38.3 million people lived in food-insecure U.S. households in 2020 — and nearly 15 percent of households with children faced food insecurity. 

The impacts of food insecurity are far-reaching. Children face greater risk of developing anemia or being hospitalized for other illnesses. Adults face greater incidence of chronic disease and obesity. Undernourished people are more prone to contracting pneumonia and diarrheal disease. What’s more, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that food insecurity is linked to poorer mental health outcomes.

According to Feeding America, food insecurity disproportionately affects Black, Latino, and Native American households; one in four Native American households faced food insecurity before the pandemic, as did one in five Black households and one in six Latino households. Very low food security generally is more prevalent in the Southern United States and among those who have not completed high school, according to the USDA.

stats about hunger

Food Insecurity During COVID-19

Organizations dedicated to ending food insecurity report that the global pandemic exacerbated food insecurity in many communities. Disruption in production cycles, labor shortages, supply-chain interruptions, and global inflation increased acute food insecurity.

The WFP reported that at least 155 million in 55 countries faced a food-security crisis in 2020, which represented an increase of 20 million over 2019. In U.S. households, the rate of food insecurity was 10.5 percent in 2020 — about the same as 2019 and down from 2018, according to the USDA.

Findings from Feeding America showed slightly lower rates of pandemic-related U.S. food insecurity than projected, though the households generally most at risk faced greater hardship. For example, Feeding America projected that 21.6 percent of Black individuals faced food insecurity in 2020 compared to 12.3 percent of white individuals. The report concluded, “The economic recovery is likely to be slower for communities of color overall, and for Black communities in particular.”

The Impact of Data Analytics on Food Insecurity

Food producers have been using data for centuries. Consider the historic use of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which growers have relied on for weather predictions, planting calendars, and frost dates since 1792. 

Today, farmers and food producers have access to more modern, comprehensive, and local data regarding every phase of their production cycles: water usage, fertilizer and pesticide needs, crop yields, distribution management, equipment optimization, and much more. Analytics can help predict the best planting and harvesting times, maximize land and resource usage, and help prevent food waste.

According to Business Insider, data analytics is making a significant impact in helping address food insecurity worldwide. How? Here are some examples:


Precision Agriculture

The U.N. Development Programme (PDF, 4.6 MB) reports that about one-half of the global freshwater used in agriculture, and about one-third of food produced is wasted. Precision agriculture can help to change that.

With precision agriculture, small-scale farmers use data, drones, sensors, mobile phones, AI, and other technologies to maximize crop yields, minimize waste, and improve productivity. The U.N. cites promising benefits of precision farming: the use of high-resolution images from satellites and drones to map farmland, analyze its nutrient density, and monitor crop health. Business Insider calls precision farming the agricultural industry’s “equivalent of data-and-analytics-powered decision-making in the business world.”


Crowdsourcing COVID-19’s Impact on Food Security in Africa

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the European Union’s Joint Research Centre developed a food pricing tool that used crowdsourced data to assess food insecurity in Nigeria during the pandemic. The tool highlighted locations of price spikes, finding that corn and rice prices increased significantly during the pandemic. According to the IFPRI, the platform illustrated the effectiveness of crowdsourcing and the potential for its usage in “responding to sudden food system shocks.”


The Baltimore Food Environment Study

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future collaborates with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative to examine the city’s food system and identify opportunities to create a more equitable food environment. The project has found that nearly 25 percent of Baltimore residents live in “Healthy Food Priority Areas,” once known as “food deserts.”

The Initiative operates in conjunction with Johns Hopkins’ Maryland Food System Map, which uses 150 data indicators to detail environmental conditions, health-related indicators, and areas with limited access to supermarkets.


SERVIR: “Connecting Space to Village”

Formed in 2004, SERVIR (a joint initiative between NASA and leading geospatial organizations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) partners with the more than 50 member countries of the SERVIR network in order to address critical challenges in climate change, food/water security, land use, and air quality. Through the use of satellites and geospatial technology, SERVIR is able to identify farming improvements needed in Africa, anticipate rice-growing conditions in Asia, and assess the impact of drought on Himalayan crops to name just a few examples.

According to NASA, “this data is the ultimate tool in building capacity within food systems — and is often the difference between anticipating drought with enough time to prepare or losing crops to lack of water.”


Resources for Addressing Food Insecurity

Government agencies, nonprofit entities, and unique local organizations are harnessing their skills and resources to deliver food-security solutions around the world. Here are some programs for families facing food insecurity, free nutrition resources, and ways in which we can help others globally.

U.S. Child Nutrition and Federally Assisted Meal Programs 


BackPack Program

Feeding America, in partnership with local food banks, distributes backpacks filled with food to schools, child-care centers, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The backpacks usually contain enough food for several meals and often are distributed before weekends or school breaks.

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

The CACFP provides kids and adults with access to healthy meals and snacks. Children enrolled in day-care services such as Head Start and adults at nonresidential care centers are eligible. CACFP also provides meal reimbursements to after-school programs and emergency shelters.

FoodCorps

Part of the AmeriCorps network, FoodCorps concentrates on nutrition in schools. In addition to organizing healthy school meals, FoodCorps works with educators to teach kids about cooking and gardening so they appreciate home-cooked food.

National School Lunch Program

This federally assisted program operates in public and private schools to provide free lunches to more than 30 million children. Schools serve meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines and receive subsidies in return.

No Kid Hungry

No Kid Hungry distributes breakfast foods, after-school meals, and lunches during the summer to millions of children. The program also offers a locator map and texting service for parents to locate food-assistance programs in their communities.

School Breakfast Program

Like the National School Lunch Program, the SBP assists states that serve free breakfasts in schools and child residential locations. More than 14 million children receive meals as a result of this program annually.

Special Milk Program

The Special Milk Program is available to kids who attend schools that do not participate in other federal programs. The program provided nearly 20 million pints of milk to children in 2019.

Summer Food Service Program

During summers, the SFSP reimburses community sites that provide kids safe access to meals. These sites can be schools, parks, churches, community centers, and hospitals. 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps people buy the food they need for healthy lives. According to Feeding America, SNAP is the nation’s largest program targeted specifically to fighting hunger.

Team Nutrition

The USDA sponsors this initiative to promote nutrition awareness and healthy food choices among children. Team Nutrition resources are available to schools, child-care organizations, and summer meal sites.

Free Nutrition Programs for Children, Teens, Adults, and Seniors


AARP Drive to End Hunger

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) organizes this initiative to reach more than 10 million hungry Americans who are 50 or older. Since 2011, the program has donated more than 45 million meals to seniors.

Administration for Community Living

The ACL is a federal agency that advocates for seniors, people with disabilities, and caregivers. One of its initiatives is the Senior Nutrition Program, which provides home-delivered meals, nutrition-related screenings, and educational services.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)

The CSFP serves low-income seniors by providing a monthly package of healthy foods to supplement their diets. The USDA administers the program, distributing food and funds to participating states and American Indian Organizations.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

The USDA encourages kids to try more fruits and vegetables through a program that makes them available in schools. The program reimburses schools that purchase fresh produce for kids to eat “as they are.” 

Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels reports that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 5.3 million U.S. seniors faced food insecurity or very low food security. The organization expects that number to rise. In 2020, it delivered nearly 20 million additional meals to seniors nationwide. 

Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)

The SFMNP provides seniors with vouchers to obtain food from participating farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs. In addition to helping low-income seniors access fresh produce, the program supports markets, small farmers, and roadside-stand operators.

Swipe Out Hunger

One in three college students is food insecure, according to Swipe Out Hunger, which prioritizes food access on campus. One impactful program is the Swipe Drive, which encourages students to donate meals to fellow students. 

USDA Foods During Disaster Assistance

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service delivers emergency food supplies to people affected by natural disasters. Supplies are distributed through the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other relief agencies.

USDA National Hunger Clearinghouse

The USDA operates a toll-free phone service that provides immediate help with food needs. The hotline also answers questions about nutrition and assists with locating meal services and food banks. The numbers are 1-866-3-HUNGRY and 1-877-3-HAMBRE.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

The USDA’s WIC program provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. According to the USDA, the WIC program serves roughly 50 percent of infants born in the U.S.

Programs for Families That Are Food Insecure


Feeding America

Feeding America works towards its mission to end hunger in the U.S. through a domestic network of 200 food banks that secures and distributes over 4.3 billion meals each year. Feeding America also conducts a variety of outreach programs, sponsors research about food waste and safety, and raises awareness about food insecurity. 

City Harvest

New York City’s food rescue movement began with organizations like City Harvest, which sources the city’s large volume of excess food and distributes it to those in need. City Harvest delivers more than 100 million pounds of rescued food annually to food pantries, soup kitchens, and other New York assistance providers.

The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFPCGP)

The USDA sponsors the CFPCGP grant program for community food projects that help people take control of their food needs. These projects increase access to fresh foods and promote long-term solutions for helping communities grow local food. The Food Project is one example of a community initiative funded through the CFPCGP.

FoodFinder

FoodFinder is a food-pantry locator that displays available pantries and meal-providers in communities across the country. The site serves more than 10,000 U.S. towns and cities.

Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT)

In 2021, the USDA expanded the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program for the duration of the pandemic. P-EBT benefits, established in March 2020, provide families with money to help compensate for meals missed during school closures.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

TEFAP offers free emergency food assistance to low-income households and seniors. This supplementary service provides fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, and canned goods to help people bolster their diets with nutritious food. 

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) 

TANF supplies about $16.5 billion in block grants to U.S. states and territories, helping low-income families “achieve economic self-sufficiency.” States use federal grants to fund monthly payments to low-income families with children and to fund other services as well. 

United Way 211

The United Way operates a free hotline to help people find food pantries and food banks, meal programs, food-delivery services, and more. Those interested can dial 211 or visit the local help finder for more information.

United Service Organizations (USO)

Food insecurity among military families is a “hidden crisis,” according to the Associated Press. One study found that 15 percent of military families have trouble getting enough food. The USO provides occasional free meals, called No Dough Dinners, to service members and their families.

YMCA Food Programs

The YMCA helps families bridge meal gaps during weekends, school holidays, and semester breaks through its after-school and summer meal programs. During the pandemic, YMCAs nationwide have provided free grab-and-go meals to families across the country.

Global Hunger Relief Organizations


Action Against Hunger

With a field staff of more than 8,000 in 45 countries, Action Against Hunger has helped more than 25 million people living with hunger and military conflict. The organization treats not only malnourishment and undernutrition, but also trains small-scale farmers to produce consistent crop yields.

Alliance to End Hunger

Established by Bread for the World, the Alliance to End Hunger joins faith-based and secular humanitarian organizations in its global mission. The group partners with government agencies, corporations, and nonprofits to advocate for policy change and support hunger-free initiatives.

Feed the Children

Founded in 1979 as an international relief organization, Feed the Children distributes food donations along with classroom supplies and recovery resources during natural disasters. In 2021, Feed the Children distributed 98.9 million pounds of food worldwide and provided more than 240,000 kids with regular meals.

Feed the Future

The U.S. government’s global initiative addresses hunger and food insecurity by working with other countries to transform their food systems. According to Feed the Future, by ”equipping people with the knowledge and tools they need to feed themselves, we are addressing the root causes of poverty and hunger, helping people end their reliance on aid, and creating important opportunities for a new generation of young people.”

The Hunger Project

The Hunger Project’s platform includes a focus on women-centered strategies to provide grassroots, sustainable food solutions. It engages with local communities and governments to change with the way food is produced and disbursed. 

Rise Against Hunger

Rise Against Hunger seeks both short-term and longer-term solutions to ending hunger. Its safety-net program provides volunteer-packaged meals. The group also works with communities to create agriculture initiatives that generate sustainable food resources and income opportunities.

Share Our Strength

Share Our Strength, founded in 1984 in response to the famine crisis in Ethiopia, has grown into one of the world’s largest hunger-relief organizations. Some initiative examples include No Kid Hungry (devoted to ending childhood hunger in the United States) and Cooking Matters (offering advice on healthy shopping and cooking).

UNICEF

The global outreach organization has helped reduce the child mortality rate by focusing on developmental issues such as nutrition, immunization, and hygiene in more than 130 countries. Unicef in particular calls early childhood “the most critical time” for proper nutrition and sponsors programs that promote breastfeeding and improve the diets of young children.

WhyHunger

WhyHunger tackles hunger and food insecurity by addressing the economic, racial, and social inequities that hinder food access. It also supports grassroots programs that benefit agroecology, which WhyHunger calls a “form of agricultural production that is resilient to climate change and a process for organizing and building community self-determination.”

Resources to Identify Food Insecurity and How to Help Others


Bread for the World

A faith-based organization, Bread for the World cites community action, faith action, policy change, and research as the pillars of ending hunger and food insecurity. It offers a variety of resources for advocates and volunteers, including educational materials about food systems, food equity, and climate change. 

Clean Cooking Alliance

Access to healthy food requires safe, proper cooking techniques; however, nearly one-third of the population cooks with polluting fuel sources, according to the Clean Cooking Alliance. This organization advocates for environmentally friendly, sustainable cooking equipment and fuels to produce better meals, reduce pollution, and improve community health.

Food Insecurity Screening Toolkit

Feeding America’s resource library includes a guide for determining whether individuals or households face food insecurity. For example, some questions to ask: Does the person skip meals to afford medicine or so others can eat? Is the person watering down food and drinks so they last longer?

Food Tank

Food Tank believes the food system is broken and identifies local groups helping to change it for the better. The organization also sponsors the Refresh Working Group, which leverages experts in agriculture and technology to bring emerging technologies to food production and distribution.

Healthy Food Playbook

Health Care Without Harm organizes a collection of resources to support hospitals and communities; promoting access to healthy food. The group’s research helps hospitals incorporate food access, behaviors, and diet-related health conditions into their community health needs assessments. 

Kids Can Make a Difference

This educational program aims to teach kids about the causes of hunger and poverty, as well as how they can contribute to ending these problems. The program’s curriculum includes a teaching guide, Finding Solutions to Hunger, that highlights constructive actions kids can take to make an impact in their communities.

Mealshare

This Canadian project partners with local restaurants to provide meals to children across the country. Diners order Mealshare items from their favorite restaurants, which contribute $1 per order to Mealshare to cover meal costs. Mealshare has distributed more than 5 million meals through its Canadian charity partners.

Nutrition International

COVID-19 triggered a malnutrition crisis that could impact more lives than the pandemic itself, according to Nutrition International. The organization highlights delivering key micronutrients (Vitamin A, Iodine, Iron, etc.) to children and communities while integrating nutrition education into other hunger-relief programs. 

The Okra Project

The Okra Project addresses food insecurity among Black Trans people by bringing free, home-cooked, nutritious, and culturally specific meals to members of the community. The organization derives its name from the Middle Passage, when people from Africa brought okra with them aboard slave ships to plant in the New World and sustain their cooking traditions. 

The Spoon Foundation (Spoon) 

Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be malnourished, according to Spoon, whose mission is to ensure all children have access to proper nutrition. Spoon trains caregivers of children with disabilities in proper feeding techniques, monitoring growth, and screening for conditions such as anemia.

Food Distribution Programs for Indigenous Communities


Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

This USDA program provides food for qualifying households living on Indigenous American reservations and to American Indian households living in qualifying areas. According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, about 270 American Indian tribes received benefits through FDPIR in 2020.

First Nations Food Pantry Initiative

First Nations organized this initiative in 2020 because, as it notes, “Native Americans have some of the highest food insecurity rates in the United States.” The initiative plans to distribute 240,000 pounds of food through Native-operated nonprofits and community groups.

GATHER Food Sovereignty Project

First Nations also sponsors an initiative to fund food-relief support, strengthen Native food economies, and promote Native food sovereignty. The project supports Native people in “reclaiming control over local food” and achieving better health.

The Hopi Foundation

This foundation oversees a host of projects that support Hopi communities and preserve their traditions. In addition, the foundation activated its Emergency Relief Fund to provide food, PPE, and other essential resources during the pandemic.

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

Achieving food sovereignty is a major goal among many Indigenous communities. The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance is one of several organizations working to restore food systems in Indigenous communities, create sustainable means of production, and preserve cultural practices.

Native Foodways

The San Francisco-based Cultural Conservancy collaborates with local farms to distribute Native foods, including organic produce, to Bay Area communities. The Native Foodways program also shares seed from Native heirloom produce and crops. 

Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3)

Founded by a former professional golfer, this nonprofit works to improve the health of Native American children, focusing on nutrition as a key component of the foundation’s mission. In addition, its COVID-19 Response Fund has distributed 67,500 pounds of food and nearly 14,000 gallons of water. 

Pueblo Relief Fund

Formed in 2020, this fund provides essential supplies, including food, to Pueblo households affected by the pandemic. It supports 20 Pueblo nations in New Mexico and Texas.

Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples Inc.

The Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples provides crisis relief through its Flicker Fund. The fund helps with urgent health needs while supporting traditional practices, including the benefits of Indigenous food systems.

Tribal Elder Food Box Program

In Wisconsin, state organizations partnered with several communities to provide Tribal Elders with better access to Indigenous foods. Boxes contain a variety of proteins (including beef, bison, and chicken), as well as produce that represent traditional Indigenous foods.

Take the Next Step in Your Community

As Feeding America summarizes, food insecurity is an economic issue that contributing factors (e.g., poverty, poor diet, limited access to good food) often worsen. But Feeding America also calls food insecurity a “modifiable social determinant of health,” one whose effects wel can all help to mitigate.

Organizations worldwide are activating their talent and combining their resources to ensure that everyone can eat properly. To help, consider supporting one of these organizations — or join the campaign to achieve food security in your community. 

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