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The Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) is the largest organization in the Washington DC metro area working to solve hunger and its companion problems: chronic under-nutrition, heart disease, and obesity. By delivering food directly into neighborhoods considered to be food deserts, and partnering with 450 member community organizations plus another 400 sites in DC, MD, and VA, the CAFB helps over 400,000 food-insecure people each year have access to healthy food. While that figure represents an impressive 12% of the region’s children, mothers and fathers, and seniors, the food bank sought better data in order to more accurately target the communities that could best benefit from their services and to make data-driven decisions. In this quest, they turned to GIS technology in order to pinpoint their food distribution goals.

The result was the creation of the Hunger Heat Map In 2015, which the Washington Post highlighted as something that could “revolutionize the war on hunger”. The food bank published maps showing the locations of food-insecure hot spots, and overlaid them with their own and their partners’ food distribution data to see where unmet need was greatest. The CAFB accomplished this by using census data that had been enhanced by Feeding America’s data team to determine the food insecurity rate of each tract, as well as the rate of public transportation use in order to predict how many people could access particular food distribution sites. Unfortunately, momentum was slowed on the project when the food bank lost its GIS specialist, as the remaining IT staff did not have the bandwidth to keep updating and improving the Hunger Heat Map. The Hunger Heat Map was losing its effectiveness because the data was close to two years old.

Consequently, in late 2018, the food bank requested a volunteer from GISCorps, and GISCorps recruited Sarah Welt to help on the project. Sarah jumped right in and essentially became the interim GIS specialist. Sarah was instrumental in jump starting the CAFB’s GIS efforts since they had fallen dormant.  Not only did she help envision how to improve the maps, she invested a great deal of time creating layers with the latest data, cleaning the data, and brainstorming new ideas.  For example, she showed the Food Bank how to create pop-up charts that added clarity and visual appeal, suggested new color palettes, and introduced the swipe feature.

Chart embedded in pop-up in ArcGIS Online
Swipe function was introduced to Capital Area Food Bank’s maps

Eventually the Food Bank hired an internal data specialist to take over day-to-day GIS work, and he was able to use her work as a starting point. Sarah played a key role in bridging the gap so that our data specialist could hit the ground running and not waste months of time starting from scratch.  With her work as the foundation, the CAFB’s data team was able to ramp up much more quickly, and has already released to staff many new maps with the latest data.  The Food Bank is especially excited to be using GIS to drive its decision making on several new exciting pilot programs such as sponsoring a mobile grocery truck. In the fall of 2019, the Food Bank will release new maps to the public with the latest data which will show trends across several years. These outcomes would have been significantly delayed without Sarah’s expertise and efforts.

Hunger heat map for 2018
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