Cap­i­tal Area Food Bank beats hunger in the re­gion with Big Data.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - DAN BEY­ERS

Some­times the best way to be­gin to at­tack a prob­lem is to vi­su­al­ize it.

The Cap­i­tal Area Food Bank, the main sup­plier of fruits, veg­eta­bles, canned goods and more to char­i­ties in the re­gion, re­cently de­vel­oped a map show­ing where food is de­liv­ered in greater Washington and where the need is great­est.

The anal­y­sis re­vealed gaps in the sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly in the sub­urbs, where rel­a­tively high me­dian in­comes mask the poverty in our midst.

The ex­er­cise also showed some­thing else: the power of data to bet­ter tar­get re­lief ef­forts.

Chief ex­ec­u­tive Nancy E. Ro­man said the non­profit has launched sev­eral ini­tia­tives to get food to the scat­tered pock­ets of hun­gry. It has started di­rect­ing some of its stocks of fresh food to out­ly­ing dis­tri­bu­tion hubs run by its char­ity and church part­ners, bring­ing the pro­duce closer to the peo­ple.

It is run­ning a bus around Prince Wil­liam County to de­liver lunches to some 300 low-in­come chil­dren who maybe miss­ing their free or sub­si­dized meals now that schools are out for the sum­mer. It has es­tab­lished fresh-food mar­kets in about a dozen schools to make pro­duce even more ac­ces­si­ble to ur­ban dwellers.

“You can’t eat healthy with­out health food,” Ro­man said.

Such ef­forts are only the start as the food­bank ap­plies its ver­sion of Big Data analy­ses to the prob­lem of hunger. The non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion has over­laid its map of ser­vice gaps with data show­ing places where busi­ness is per­co­lat­ing.

The idea is to iden­tify po­ten­tial busi­ness part­ners in those neigh­bor­hoods and rally them to the cause.

The tim­ing could be for­tu­itous. “Well­ness” is be­com­ing a mantra in cor­po­rate Amer­ica, and many com­pa­nies are tak­ing a newin­ter­est in so­cial works as a way to re­cruit and re­tain from the wave of mil­len­nial wun­derkinds en­ter­ing the work­place.

“The funny thing about em­ploy­ees: They turn out to be peo­ple,” Ro­man said.

Peo­ple who are of­ten in­ter­ested in serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ties around them. Ro­man hopes to cre­ate a net­work of busi­ness lead­ers and “neigh­bor­hood cap­tains” to ad­vise the group, and let ideas for new ser­vices bub­ble up from the peo­ple clos­est to the need.

“Whenyou start talk­ing to part­ners, you of­ten find an­swers that are bet­ter than your own,” she said.

Think of it as bring­ing fresh eyes to the prob­lem.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Vol­un­teers Karen Chan, cen­ter, and Clara Her­nan­dez, right, helped at the Cap­i­tal Area Food Bank in­Wash­ing­ton in 2013.

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