Case Study

DCFS: Innovating the Fight Against Hunger in Louisiana

Louisiana employs data-driven insights to fight hunger and improve household stability

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is responsible for keeping vulnerable populations safe, fed, and healthy by helping families become self-sufficient. A critical component of this work is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance to more than 410,000 households in Louisiana, and tens of thousands more during disaster events through DSNAP.

Serving these communities is an ever-evolving challenge, as individuals move, their program eligibility status changes, and funding is often contingent on shifting political climates. Still, DCFS regularly re-evaluates their operations to meet the needs of their vulnerable populations and identify where there may be opportunity for improvement. To gain data-driven intelligence into their food insecure populations, DCFS and their community based organizations (CBOs) partners have turned to UrbanFootprint’s Food Security Insights (FSI) and government Assist data platform.

The stakes in Louisiana are high

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ranks Louisiana third highest in the country for per capita SNAP enrollment, with 1 in 5 people receiving benefits, compared to the average of 1 in 8 for the US as a whole. Still, DCFS was aware that additional eligible populations needed to be enrolled and wanted actionable insights into their vulnerable households.

Chart that shows deep poverty has increased in Louisiana and decreased nationally

Demographic data analysis was key for understanding the larger economic and health security realities in the state. Much of this population is at the intersection of health and hunger challenges, as Louisiana has the country’s highest rate of Medicaid participants and people in poverty. Women, children, and people of color are disproportionately represented in these figures, which makes outreach efforts mission critical for achieving equity goals.

Serving these communities plays a central role in economic security and housing stability, and requires coordination from the state legislature in Baton Rouge down to regional offices and local outreach groups throughout Louisiana’s 64 parishes.

DFCS identified multiple challenges they wanted to address through a technology partner so they could better serve their communities:

Use a single-source of truth for information and knowledge sharing

Locate eligible populations not enrolled in SNAP benefits and close the gap

Evaluate locations to deploy additional SNAP resources

Identify at-risk population changes in near real-time to reduce lapses in enrollment

Improve demographic data and equity metrics for grant proposals and funding relief

DCFS is committed to digital transformation

Government Assist uses statistical models, neural networks, and machine-learning to produce first of its kind data insights in the form of regularly updated, actionable information from the state to block-group levels.

DCFS and their partners use FSI within the Assist platform to map the gap between SNAP enrollees and unserved households. The primary outputs of the innovative FSI models are estimates of food insufficiency – households lacking consistent access to food in the last seven days; and food insecurity – households that are food insufficient or have received food assistance in the last seven days. Identifying this gap, and subsequently targeting need, involves a complex combination of data sources, machine learning algorithms, and actionable insight curation.

1. Collect, combine, and clean dozens of demographic data sets, including age, gender, race and ethnicity, household income, and education

2. Run statistical models that use machine-learning-based small-area estimation to produce block group food insecurity data set against household characteristics

3. Produce easy-to-use, data-rich maps for gap identification, logistics planning, outreach targeting, and reporting metrics

As a component of UrbanFootprint’s broader government Assist solution, FSI enables government assistance stakeholders to improve outreach targeting, address service and equity gaps, and achieve holistic program improvements with clear, fast, accessible insights on program need, eligibility, and enrollment.

Actionable data visualization for central and regional offices

There are multiple stakeholders involved in SNAP program administration. Information sharing at DCFS had long been challenging, as is the case with many assistance programs that comprise multiple regional offices with localized community objectives. Knowing which communities were most in-need relied on local knowledge keepers and informal communication networks. And in the case of DCFS, each was operating with different systems and data (or in some cases incomplete data). This made collaboration significantly more difficult as all stakeholders were not coming to the table with the same ‘source of truth’ for how they should work together. The lack of alignment also delayed critical and time-sensitive action.

Food bank project managers, for example, who are committed to their communities but spread thin across multiple responsibilities, are constantly making the most with what they have. In a traditional workflow when they wanted to coordinate with a local CBO, such as a church or school, they would consult contact lists, various online maps, and internet searches to align delivery and distribution locations. This information was often outdated, limited, and part of a piecemeal and time consuming process, taking hours and days to operationalize. Working across multiple parishes, they often canvassed in cycles once per year rather than targeting areas that might be most in need at a given time. This resulted in resource limitations that lowered event impact, despite the extensive efforts of project managers, their teams, and volunteers.

DCFS previously had only general estimates for their service areas, which meant that resources could be over- or under- allocated. Through a single-source of truth, the central DCFS office and regional food banks use FSI to share knowledge, communicate clearly, and act on the same data insights visualized on a data-rich map. Instantly they could see that in some neighborhoods over 40% of households were food insecure, but lacked targeted outreach.

After using UrbanFootprint, Mike Manning, President and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank said,

Each parish within our 11-parish service area ranges from 10,000 to 450,000 people. It is extremely important that we identify specific areas of need to maximize the impact of our thin food resources. With Food Security Insights, we can see areas within each parish that are most in need to coordinate with our partnered agencies to prioritize and serve those communities.

Mike Manning, President and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank

DCFS is now able to use the UrbanFootprint platform to consult regularly updated information internally with its staff, as well as its multiple partners. Employees have access to block-group data, including total population, food insecurity and insufficiency estimates, household incomes, poverty and education rates, and other demographic data that provides a clear picture of the communities served. All of this is made available to team members through intuitive mapping applications and dashboards. This granular action-oriented data informs outreach types to better tailor operations to those being served, as well as anticipate churn in high SNAP enrollment areas, which is costly to the state. Such a simple and quick access point is complemented by dashboards to expedite recovery reporting, grant applications, and other accountability metrics that are critical for sustaining operations and funding.

DCFS reduced the statewide enrollment gap substantially in just six months by utilizing data insights, optimizing operational planning, and increasing their outreach on the ground. These efforts were aided by the extension of Simplified Reports and Redetermination Renewals, which reduced churn and case closures. Together this has meant more people served, more consistently.

SNAP at a glance

SNAP is the overarching federal food assistance program funding much of DCFS’ efforts, but in order to be most effective for a diverse group of recipients, large scale nutrition operations entail multiple localized outreach programs:

Building a sustained partnership

The State of Louisiana first began working with UrbanFootprint in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Partnering with the Center of Panning Excellence (CPEX), UrbanFootprint provided digital tools for sustainable recovery planning based on the Louisiana Speaks regional plan, which was then adopted by Louisiana Recovery Authority in 2007.

CPEX once again partnered with UrbanFootprint at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic was a prolonged and unpredictable emergency event that required real-time updates on shifting vulnerable communities. Food insecurity in some areas increased as much as 65%, leaving project managers with the difficult task of locating these individuals, many of whom lived in food deserts compounded by the pandemic. The Mayor of Baton Rouge stated,

…all decisions should be data driven. Access to the type of hyper-local, dynamic data provided by the Recovery Insights Platform will be valuable in my efforts to develop targeted strategies that address areas of greatest need throughout East Baton Rouge Parish.

UrbanFootprint provided recovery insights centered on equity and food insecurity. With these insights, the state gained its first true view into how food insecurity had changed throughout its parishes and expedited organized relief efforts accordingly.

The project’s success signaled additional opportunities to drive assistance programs beyond pandemic-specific needs, and into sustained outreach efforts.

Reaching those in need faster – freeing up time for mission critical work

Food assistance will always be based on trust and local relationships that require tight alignment between State and local organizations. Data-driven insights cannot replace these in-person exchanges – they must work behind the scenes to empower smarter, more efficient decision making, resourcing, and logistics.

The White House outlined their vision for these types of partnerships at the first Hunger Conference since 1969, pledging to end hunger-related deaths by 2030. Technology and data solutions are critical to this endeavor, with the federal government promising more than $2.5 billion to startups building innovative solutions, and another $4 billion to philanthropic groups. Data and technology partnerships must seamlessly bring value to their state and local stakeholders by making certain tasks, such as data automation and information surfacing, faster and easier in order to free up time for on-the-ground and in-person efforts.

Thankfully, in Louisiana they are already on this path. Shavana Howard, Assistant Secretary for Family Support at DCFS, explains the value of the UrbanFootprint-DCFS partnership:

UrbanFootprint’s innovative approach to addressing food insecurity and the SNAP Gap through data and technology provides us with powerful data insights to budget resources efficiently, distribute food benefits effectively, and engage communities that are most in need.

Shavana Howard, Assistant Secretary for Family Support at DCFS

Partner snapshot

Food banks are the service hub for federal and state operations. They partner with schools, churches, mobile pantries and other distribution outlets to deliver food to in-need families. These on-the-ground organizations are the key end-users for digital tools that optimize their outreach.

DCFS relies on multiple food banks that cover large service territories, including two in their most populous districts to serve hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Second Harvest

Second Harvest Food Bank was founded in 1982 and today works throughout South Louisiana to fight hunger, supporting more than 700 community partners and programs across 23 parishes. The organization provides food access, advocacy, and education, as well as disaster response. Their more than 25,000 staff and volunteers distribute over 32 million meals to more than 210,000 people each year.

Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank

Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank was formed in 1984, growing out of the Urban Ministries Coalition during a difficult economic moment for the city. The organization has since grown to a nearly $30 million dollar non-profit organization serving 11 parishes.

Maximizing impact is and continues to be DCFS’ ultimate goal – serving more than 900,000 SNAP recipients each month, as well as hundreds of thousands of additional children, seniors, and vulnerable households during emergency and disaster events. Every investment they make is geared toward reaching the populations that count on them, day in and day out. And with data on their side, they are confident they will continue to distribute critical assistance to those who need it most.

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