Companies find ways to fight hunger using technology in the Midwest

As food insecurity rates have nearly doubled in Nebraska since March, local food banks and community nonprofits have expanded their tech resources, and a new field of innovation is emerging to serve their needs.   Since the onset of COVID-19 restrictions began in March, Nebraska’s yearly unemployment rate has risen from 3.1 to 5.2 percent, bringing…

Andrew Glantz, CEO of GiftAMeal, using his company's app - photo courtesy GiftAMeal
Andrew Glantz, CEO of GiftAMeal, using his company's app - photo courtesy GiftAMeal

As food insecurity rates have nearly doubled in Nebraska since March, local food banks and community nonprofits have expanded their tech resources, and a new field of innovation is emerging to serve their needs.  

Since the onset of COVID-19 restrictions began in March, Nebraska’s yearly unemployment rate has risen from 3.1 to 5.2 percent, bringing on a tidal wave of new families in need of basic necessities. Luckily, this surge of needs has been followed by an outpouring of community support. 

“All across Nebraska and Iowa, people are finding themselves in the unexpected position of seeking emergency food assistance, many for the very first time,” said Angie Grote, communications manager for Omaha-based Food Bank for the Heartland, which distributes food to 600 pantries, schools, emergency shelters and other nonprofit partners in Nebraska and Iowa. “It’s a very vulnerable position for folks to be in and we understand that, and the food banks have been working relentlessly with partners across their communities to distribute more food than we ever have before to meet this urgent need.”

According to estimates by Feeding America, the projected overall food insecurity rate for 2020 was up in nearly every county in the Midwest.

The growing culture of giving is not just a fluke of the pandemic; it has raw data to back it up. 

A 17-month case study conducted by GiftAMeal, an app that offers incentives for restaurant-goers to give a meal to someone in need when they log orders on their phones, shows that consumer commitment to ethical companies is on the rise.

In partnership with Bloom Cafe in St. Louis, the data showed that customers who use the service spent an average of “25 percent more per more per transaction, returned 20 percent more frequently, and tipped 34 percent more than those who did not use the app.”

In light of the uptick in community interest, food banks have seen growth in support and donations, bolstered further by software that allows donors to give more easily. To help focusing on clients, organizations have integrated a slew of new tech which provides user-friendly systems that allow community members to more easily sign up to volunteer time and resources. 

“Technology was very, very critical,” said Grote of soliciting assistance from the public. “Utilizing it as people were making financial donations to the food bank via our website, and we were so grateful through our software to be able to have that capacity. Folks in the community who want to give and help their neighbors during this crisis have a secure and easy way for people to make a financial donation that makes a significant impact on our operations.”

In transitioning to online software, staff members can also bypass tedious administrative work and focus on serving those in need of assistance. 

“We utilize our website for our volunteers as well,” said Grote. “We have volunteer software that lets folks who are interested in volunteering register and then sign up for available shifts. Our volunteers have remained open, and we’ve been getting more donations than ever before, and we are really reliant on our volunteers to help us out. So the software is an easy way for people to be able to sign up themselves and not have to speak to a food bank staff member.”

While some organizations struggle to move online, No More Empty Pots in Omaha has been able to transition through finding innovative ways in technology to streamline work and focus on their mission to fight hunger through self-sufficiency. 

Nancy Williams, founder and CEO of No More Empty Pots, found that many of the software programs already in use by the organization allowed them to move forward without having to change their operations on a massive scale. In turn, staff members can take more time to focus on their clients.

“We didn’t have a big learning curve where people had to pivot to learn how to use a new tool, because we were already using it,” she said. 

Like Williams, other service organization heads are finding that the use of technology is helping organizations grow their success using the innovative mindset that tech has to offer.

“The tools are in place,” she said, “so how do we leverage it? We always start out using what we have, and then if we can do a little bit better then we can change it.”

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