Very few of us before 2020 understood the effect a global pandemic could have on our daily lives. Few natural events could have an impact on such a diverse set of things like supply chains, entertainment, education and healthcare. We quickly learned what essential services and workers were and the industries they supported. These services were often taken for granted as they've never been disrupted in a way that made us consider life without them.
One of these essential services are food banks. I was aware of the purpose of these organizations but didn't realize the important gap they fill between government and the private sector, especially in times of crisis. I had the opportunity to speak with Nick DiSebastian, a data analyst at the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). It was great to hear directly from people who are working hard every day to help their communities among all the non-stop doom and gloom over the last several weeks. Before I share our discussion I want to give you some background on the food bank and how things have changed in 2020.
About the food bank
The Atlanta Community Food bank is a massive operation and is one of the largest in the southeastern United States. It utilizes more than 1,700 volunteers a month, employs over 150 staff members and hosts a 355,000 square-foot facility to manage their operations. They serve 60 million meals and serve more than 755,000 people in 29 counties across metro Atlanta and North Georgia. Their donors include manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, brokers, restaurants, food drives, gardens and individuals. Typically food donations can be easily retrieved by food bank partners. An online order could be placed and then picked up or delivered. Things changed when the pandemic hit and there were many challenges including less volunteers to help meet the need and less donations due to the economic impact of COVID19. All of this while demand for on services increased.
The food bank saw an increase of 30-35% of food being provided to the public. In the first month there was a 300% increase in web traffic to their website. The volunteer program had to be suspended to protect public health. The employees of the food bank stepped up to fill the gap. The Georgia National Guard was also called in to help sort and distribute food. Another huge change was less donations of food directly to the food bank. With supply chains disrupted and an increase demand on grocery stores, monetary donations had to be relied on to purchase food.
Operations were also adapted to protect public health while still meeting the mission of the food bank. Mobile and drive-thru distributions are used when possible. Scheduling appointments and designating a member of a household visit the pantry or distribution site to decrease the number of people congregating in one place. Another key element is getting information on where food is being distributed. The food bank deployed an online map using Esri's platform to provide an easy way to find these locations.
Using web maps to improve level of service
I asked Nick about the map: "The map contains 350 locations to pick up food that include food pantries, churches, schools, and senior citizen homes. Information is constantly being updated to ensure that people arrive at a location that is distributing food." You wouldn't want hungry people to show up somewhere that was no longer available for food distribution. Not only can the public find the information they need but the map can also be used internally. "Not everyone has access to the internet and we have a call center to help people over the phone. Our employees can use these maps to quickly look up a caller's address and identify a location nearby by rather than searching through a list." This is an example of GIS being operationalized to help improve level of service. Faster and easier access to information means the food bank can get the right information to people quickly. Below is a screenshot of the map and here is a link.
There are other areas that GIS is used to accomplish the mission of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "There's a few different application areas where we use GIS. We use it internally to make data-driven decisions about where to fill gaps in service and to educate people on the issue of hunger in their communities," said Nick. Using site selection, they can use demographic and other data to identify those neighborhoods that are most in need. Working with limited resources its critical to be efficient in the use of those resources. Did I mention 95% of every dollar given to the ACFB goes to the community? Nick is working on a project by collaborating with the communication team to create a story map that highlights the issue of hunger. Story maps are a tool that combines a variety of media like text, pictures and maps to tell a compelling story. It also has a set of templates out of the box and hosted online so you can focus on the story you're trying to tell.
Food banks are helping us through the crisis of hunger this pandemic has caused. By feeding those in need, people don't have to choose between eating or paying the rent. Organizations like the Atlanta Community Food Bank enables people to have a better quality of life and position them to have a better life in the future. Take a look around your community and see what organizations are helping those in need. Go find a food bank in your area and donate your time or money. A big shout out to all those working tirelessly to feed America and get us through these challenging times. We all appreciate the work you do and your dedication to improving our communities!