Featured Columnist: Closing the Meal Gap

Clubs and Organizations

April 21, 2014

Hunger-Free Minnesota is a time-limited, data-driven campaign working to close the missing-meal gap in Minnesota by 2015. Focused on targeted initiatives that combined will add 60 million new meals to the hunger-relief system, Hunger-Free Minnesota funds innovative strategies in emergency food system capacity, rescuing surplus food, enrollment and utilization of federal nutrition programs, and health outcomes for food insecure populations.

In its original business plan, Hunger-Free Minnesota recognized that the success of many of its efforts to close Minnesota's missing meal gap depends ultimately on the capacity of community-level organizations to increase their service. Therefore, one key initiative is investing in the capacity of local partners around the state. To provide strategic insight for prioritizing system capacity investments, Hunger-Free Minnesota partnered with The Boston Consulting Group in the summer of 2012 to create a new geo-analytics tool that would provide insight about the relative severity of missing meals and relative utilization of anti-hunger resources at the local community level.

The tool is called Community Close-Up, which is an aptly named data analysis tool to approximate how many meals its hungriest residents are missing and in which census tracts they reside. Demographic information provided for each of Minnesota's 1,332 census tracts helps suggest priorities for closing the meal gap at the community level. Community Close-Up is a powerful resource because it helps Hunger-Free Minnesota as well as the partner organizations that receive system capacity grants. Hunger-Free Minnesota can identify the highest concentrations of missing meals across the state to prioritize for investment, and the numerous hunger-fighting organizations can not only prioritize their efforts but drive more collaboration.

Based on 2010 Census and other data, Community Close-Up provides information on a community's relative missing meal gap as well as the resource supply, comparing urban, suburban and rural Census tracts, providing data tables and associated maps. The darker the area is shaded, the relatively higher amount of missing meals. The same goes for the supply data: the darker the area is shaded, the higher utilization of government food assistance programs and presence of nonprofit food providers. Since the maps provide such a detailed visualization, Community Close-Up is routinely used as a catalyst for community discussion and collaboration. Defining the meal gap and food insecure population in a community creates an opportunity to stimulate ideas about creative and transformative solutions. In turn, it also generates an environment to establish a precise plan of action to close the defined meal gap, whether it be to start a mobile pantry program, increase capacity at a food shelf, participate in SNAP and/or WIC outreach or work with a school to increase school breakfast participation.

CROSS, a non-profit organization in Rogers, Minn., provides food and clothing for those in temporary need. Upon receiving a grant from Hunger-Free Minnesota, CROSS utilized the Community Close-Up data to engage their organization internally and to create a sense of urgency that their community was in need. CROSS Executive Director Liz Johnson states, "Referring to the study of missing meals and how our area has much higher food insecurity than one might think helped greatly. In fact, the statement "missing meals and food insecurity" made people stop and tell me about their mom or their neighbor or the kids in the schools." The "missing meals" dialogue became more about the stories of lives than numbers and this is a good thing."

CAPI is another organization that illustrates the catalytic impact that Community Close-Up data can have on an organization and their hunger-fighting efforts. Founded in 1982, CAPI has been providing a wide variety of programs to help serve refugees and immigrants in the Minneapolis area for 31 years. CAPI was investigating new location options due to recent shifts in their clients' current residency. With their clients now coming from farther away, CAPI was interested in moving their office in order to provide more convenient and efficient services. Combining the Hunger-Free Minnesota Community Close-Up data and the food shelf's client data, CAPI was able to create a Google map that offered valuable information regarding total population, Asian population, missing meal level and number of CAPI participants per 2010 census tract. This was invaluable for CAPI while they were assessing various location options in the North Minneapolis area. It allowed CAPI to gain not only a better understanding of their service area and demographic, but also who they are as an organization. The maps were helpful in creating a visual representation of CAPI's present and future and how their brand is evolving. "It helps us tell our story in concrete ways," says Jennifer Racho, executive director of CAPI.

These stories are testaments of the diligent work that organizations do every day to combat hunger. The data that is provided by Community Close-Up influences different agencies in a variety of ways, but all working towards the same mission of providing more meals to those in need. Food insecurity is a problem we have the power to solve, and Community Close-Up provides a tool to make that impact. Whether it's by providing more meals, increasing capacity or creating a collaborative environment, Hunger-Free Minnesota is dedicated to improving the way we look at hunger and providing opportunities for organizations statewide to reach their full potential.