Coronavirus file photo stock of grocery shopping precautions

In this March 27, 2020, file photo, cashier Baby San wears a face shield and gloves as she scans items at grocery store Super Cao Nguyen, in Oklahoma City, due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Louisiana is gearing up to deploy a new data analytics tool to identify the neighborhoods experiencing the highest levels of hunger but the lowest levels of food stamp enrollments.

The first-of-its-kind partnership between the state's Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, and the California-based data firm UrbanFootprint aims to narrow the so-called "SNAP gap": the difference between those eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and those actually enrolled.

The tool will overlay the state's existing SNAP enrollment data against fine-grain, neighborhood-level estimates of the number of households facing food insecurity. The areas with the biggest disparities will become the focus of outreach campaigns and food distribution efforts. 

"There's a huge gap between where applications are being fielded and where you have the greatest needs," said Joe DiStefano, the CEO at UrbanFootprint. "The most vulnerable, highest need communities often are focused on the day-to-day challenge of surviving, and aren't aware of the programs out there."

The blending of cutting edge data science with government relief efforts comes as Louisiana faces staggering levels of hunger as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 1 million Louisianans from 477,000 households received SNAP benefits this past January, a 23% increase in household enrollments from the previous year. 

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That demand isn't expected to let up anytime soon, said Shavana Howard, assistant secretary for family support at DCFS, adding that the tool will help the state sharpen its outreach efforts and "target the parishes that really need the support." 

To determine the number of households facing food insecurity, the tool analyzes a number of data inputs: jobless claims, existing demographic information, as well as “pulse” surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau that asks questions like, “How often did you go without food in the last seven days?” 

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The data will be updated once every two weeks, offering a dynamic picture of where need is concentrated. That speed is particularly useful in moments of crisis, like a global pandemic, when hunger levels can quickly spike. In the first 30 days of the pandemic, for example, DCFS received 5 times its normal volume of SNAP applications. 

Korey Patty, the executive director of Feeding Louisiana, an organization which advocates for the state's food banks, said the tool's real-time data outputs will help determine where to best deploy outreach teams or set-up food distribution sites.

“We’ve always known how many meals our food bank network partners provide and how many people are enrolled in programs like SNAP. What we’ve been missing is the denominator — a clear understanding of how many households are food insecure—and where these households are located," Patty said. 

The data will also help organizations like Feeding Louisiana better advocate for additional support for hunger relief, Patty said, adding that they're asking the state to allocate $3 million to help food pantries purchase freezers and other infrastructure to keep up with demand, among other priorities. 

As part of its pandemic response, the federal government has ratcheted up its level of aid for hunger relief programs, raising the maximum SNAP benefit amount by 15%, opening up eligibility to thousands college students, and providing cash assistance for families with school children who receive free-and-reduced lunch.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was providing an additional $1 billion per month in food assistance to millions of low-income families, an expansion in emergency benefits that is expected to send an additional $138.5 million to Louisiana's neediest families over the next six months. Such monumental levels of federal aid has only highlighted the importance of getting the relief in the right hands, DiStefano said. 

“You can’t just drop those resources over a state and hope it gets to where it's needed. You need data, you need information, you need a battle-plan to distribute it to the places that need it most,” DiStefano said. 

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Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater