Feeding America

With Tableau, Feeding America builds a data culture focused on fighting hunger

Upgraded data collection from manual processes every four years to dynamic, real-time analytics tools

Enabled insights for a growing number of non-technical users at all organizational levels across a 60,000+ partner network

Assessed and responded quickly to changing areas of need by using live data from Tableau dashboards

More than 38 million people in the U.S. face hunger, including more than 12 million children. To help address this issue, Feeding America—the country’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization—and its network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and more than 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs, provides meals to tens of millions of people each year. Feeding America also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people it serves, brings attention to the social and systemic barriers that contribute to food insecurity in our nation, and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry.

“Feeding America has an aspiration for this whole country,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, Feeding America CEO. “A country where no one is hungry. Where every single person has access to the foods that they prefer, and the foods that they need, in order to live rich, full lives.”

Data is pervasive in its ability to be instrumental and game-changing. I consider it part of my mandate to ensure that Feeding America has a data-informed, data-fortified culture across our network.

Feeding America member food banks safely store food and distribute it to local food programs like food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. To achieve its mission, Feeding America has steadily built a powerful human and transportation infrastructure on the back end.

“Feeding America distributed 6.6 billion meals in the middle of a global health pandemic. That does not happen without a lot of sophistication in terms of logistics,” says Babineaux-Fontenot. “A data-informed approach in our work is absolutely critical. It's fundamental, and it's essential.”

What is hunger?

The challenge addressed by Feeding America is pervasive in every part of the country, reaching people in a wide variety of circumstances. “Hunger exists in every community, in every county and parish in the U.S.—including the wealthy ones,” says Stephanie Zidek, Senior Director of Data and Analytics at Feeding America. “One of the first things data helps our organization communicate to people is showing how widespread the hunger problem is, so we can zero in on specific needs.”

Katie Fitzgerald, Feeding America COO, concurs. “In our work, we like to say that we don’t have a food scarcity problem in this country. We have a food access problem,” Fitzgerald said. “By harnessing data, we can unlock this problem by identifying where food insecurity exists and figuring out how to get food to those locations.”

Accomplishing these efforts on a major scale requires insights into the true conditions of hunger—the who, what, and where. “Before we can help, we first need to understand where our neighbors are who are facing hunger, so that we can be in the right communities to serve them,” said Zidek. “Then, we need to understand what kind of food they need. And to be effective at all this, we need current data and a way of understanding it so we can figure out the best and fastest way to provide assistance.”

Access to real-time data about the people we’re serving allows us to act more quickly and efficiently to meet their needs.

This informed, daily decision-making impacts Feeding America’s operations at every level, from its national organization to its network of food banks, whose service areas range from one county to ninety-three counties. The data used for supporting these decisions is mostly provided by the food banks, based on questions that Feeding America asks to effectively target assistance.

“There are a multitude of considerations,” Zidek said. “Who is living in each household—what ages, what genders, what ethnicity and race? Based on that, what foods do they lack, and what do they prefer? And we ask: How can we serve each community best? What characteristics of a community affect its needs—is it accessible, is there work nearby, do people travel there from far away?”

All of these criteria come into play as Feeding America continuously seeks to serve communities facing hunger, hone its operations, and amplify its mission. Data is at the heart of this mission. With this level of data in hand, the organization can mobilize its resources to fill each need and gather meaningful statistics on the patterns of hunger that help persuade communities and all levels of government to continue supporting their hunger relief efforts.

I find data to be a powerful tool in any conversation. When we went to Congress, we were able to say: Here's what we need to do, here's why, and here's what's likely to be the impact when that happens.

“I find myself in the position to speak across so many audiences and to so many different constituencies,” said Babineaux-Fontenot. “And I find data to be a powerful tool in every one of those conversations. Asking people questions, and then having them see their answers inside of the data that we use in order to be partners with them, it’s powerful.”

The journey to modernizing data analytics

While precise data has been instrumental in driving Feeding America’s mission today, it hasn’t always been there in the past. Previously, the organization relied on data from its Hunger in America study, conducted every four years. The study shed light on broad hunger trends, but although it surveyed more than 60,000 people at food programs across the country, the data it yielded remained static until the next study, four years later.

“The Hunger in America study was a huge undertaking, but it only ever spoke to the reality of hunger at a specific point in time,” said Zidek. “Within a short while after we conducted the study, new trends would emerge, and we’d have no way of tracking them until the next study was completed. We extrapolated the best we could, but it wasn’t working—we needed real-time data about the people we were feeding so we could serve them more effectively.”

The insights we get from real-time data enable us to think creatively and proactively about our mission. Where are we serving people today, and what are the best new ways to reach the ones who we are not serving yet?

On the analytics side, insights were further limited by the static nature of spreadsheets the organization used to analyze the study data they collected. Communication with partners was likewise limited by the complexity of the Feeding America network: a group comprising thousands of food banks and partner agencies who typically lacked a clear requirement or capacity for sharing data as part of their collaboration with Feeding America and with each other.

The last Hunger in America survey was released in 2014. From that time, Feeding America has worked with Tableau to integrate data from partner agencies into dashboards that provide up-to-the-minute views into areas of need, changing hunger conditions, demographic considerations, and the types of food and services needed for fulfillment.

“What is beautiful about a partnership, like the partnership we have with Tableau, is that it helps us to understand more deeply what it is that people do prefer. It helps us to understand what people need. It helps us understand whom it is that we're serving, all at once,” said Babineaux-Fontenot. “It’s a powerful tool to have in our arsenal in this fight against hunger. Data, especially modern technology, has the potential to unlock a bright future for this country. We're excited that we get to be a part of that, and that our partnership with Tableau helps us to deepen our ability to be a part of it.”

Beyond simply collecting the data, Feeding America worked to make sure the wide variety of non-technical users at the national organization, food banks, and partner agencies all felt engaged with the data and excited about using it. “We’re in the throes of adoption, and there’s still plenty of work to do,” said Fitzgerald. “But with the help of Tableau, we’ve built a client service insights platform that removes barriers to using data and makes data come alive for our people so it’s easy for them to understand and get the insights they need.”

If you start with data, it is a way of saying: ‘We know this—help us learn more.’ You can start a conversation. You can start investment. You can build a movement.

One way for Feeding America to achieve adoption at scale was to also build on some of its member food banks’ investments. The Mid-Ohio Food Collective, for example, had modernized its IT platform in ways that enabled it to share data analytics across most of the food banks in Ohio, along with a few in other states. The data analytics built on top of this technology was based on Mid-Ohio's participation in a 2016 data fellowship program through Tableau Foundation. With cooperation from Feeding America, the Mid-Ohio data collection platform was refined and expanded nationwide, becoming part of the Feeding America platform, with a constituency of users who were already familiar with the dashboards and therefore able to help others come on board.

Tableau Foundation also helped Feeding America jump-start its own data modernization efforts. Zidek and her team's early Tableau dashboards were based on static data at first but have gradually upgraded to automated data feeds and electronic data collection.

“It’s rather stunning how much we’ve advanced on our data journey in such a short window,” said Babineaux-Fontenot. “I can’t envision a future where data is not going to be at least as important as it is today.”

Sharing insights to make communities healthier and stronger

With a powerful new platform for sharing data across the Feeding America network, and more users at more partner agency locations adopting the platform every week, efficiency and efficacy are at an all-time high. The work will not stop until its mission is accomplished to advance change in America by ensuring equitable access to nutritious food for all. 

Access to data means food bank and partner agency staff and volunteers have better insights into each community’s needs, right down to the individual level. For example, a person might visit a food bank not realizing they’re eligible for food assistance resources, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. With rapid access to this information, food bank employees can advise neighbors on their eligibility for these programs. And when food banks are advocating for more resources, their access to data helps empower them to have conversations about the need for change—conversations that would be far less persuasive without having the data at hand.

Data plays a huge role in how we do our work. We know that behind every piece of data is a person, and those people can be dramatically affected by the work that we do.

“Feeding America is here to build a movement, to catalyze a movement, to inspire this country to decide that food insecurity is unacceptable,” said Babineaux-Fontenot. “Data is helping us do that. Ensuring that communities are well positioned to thrive, and that every member in that community has the nutrition that they need in order to thrive is something that’s in the interest of every person. Data helps us to tell this story in powerful ways.”

Looking to the near future, Zidek said that predictive analytics will increasingly become a part of Feeding America’s efforts. Now that the organization has modernized the ways it collects and responds to data, her team’s next steps will be to determine ways of using data that point to future scenarios for which Feeding America can plan and prepare. This will represent yet another facet of employing data and technology to serve and empower communities in need.

Babineaux-Fontenot continues to embrace this philosophy as a simple truth. “There’s dignity in choice,” she points out. “I have an aspiration, as do all of the people who do this work with us, that people who are experiencing food insecurity have the same types of luxuries around food that you have and that I have. The work with Tableau is helping us do that.”

Sidebar: Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, a Feeding America member food bank, uses data to feed more people efficiently

Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana is a network of hunger relief agencies covering 23 parishes (counties) across southern Louisiana, from the Texas to Mississippi borders. Its service area includes most of the state’s population, and includes populations that are unusually susceptible to climate and economic changes. To keep pace with demands during a time of crisis, the food bank relies on data from Feeding America’s service insights platform to track areas and indicators of increased need.

“Data plays a huge role for us,” said Lindsay Hendrix, Chief Impact Officer at Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana. “We know that behind every piece of data is a person who can be dramatically impacted by the work we do. We seek to always give each person the best service we can, and we can’t do that without data.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank met hundreds of thousands of neighbors who needed support for the first time. Many communities were devastated by the revenue downturn in key industries like tourism, energy, and hospitality. The food bank used unemployment data to secure visibility and funding for the increase in demand, and demographic data to help focus on groups that were disproportionately affected, such as communities of color.

“Census data is very important to how we respond to the needs of a particular group,” said Hendrix. “If we want to best serve that community, it helps us make decisions about who best to partner with, how to conduct outreach, and many other factors.”

The Feeding America service insights platform gives Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana real-time data that enables them, for the first time, to report to stakeholders exactly who is being served at the food bank on a daily basis, including what zip code they’re arriving from, what their family composition is, the particular foods they need, and other data that can produce insights into ways their operations can be adjusted or improved.

“For example, we found that at a particular Second Harvest location in greater New Orleans, families were traveling long distances in order to access that pantry,” said Hendrix. “And we found out the reason was that it was open five days per week, which is a huge consideration for families facing hunger—they need food when they need it. So, we worked with other partners to try and open up more capacity in locations that were closer to these neighbors’ homes.”