Hack Hunger wants your help fighting food insecurity in Chicago

by Andreas Rekdal
April 30, 2019
hackathon food depository chicago
Image via the greater chicago food depository.

Each year, one in six Cook County residents experiencing hunger receives food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and its affiliates.

That figure is staggering in and of itself, but according to Kelly Klein, a senior director at the nonprofit, Chicago’s food insecurity problem is hard to measure — and probably even bigger.

“Hunger is episodic,” she said. “For a working family, it might mean running out of food stamps at the end of the month, or the paycheck doesn’t quite stretch. Or there could be an emergency that comes up with a car.”

Hunger is episodic.”

Early next month, representatives from Chicago’s tech scene are getting together for a Hackathon to End Hunger. At the full-day event, about 150 participants will form teams to come up with tech-driven solutions to the Food Depository’s challenges. (As of this writing, registrations are still open.)

“The goal is to tackle one of three initiatives that the Greater Chicago Food Depository puts out in a very compressed way, and then the actual solution gets built over the course of the next year,” said Bob Armour, who is a committee member at Hack Hunger.

Last year’s hackathon winners created a chatbot, which is now used by the GCFD in beta to connect with clients and help them find available resources. Armour, who is Jellyvision’s CMO by day, said one of this year’s challenge topics is to improve the functionality of that chatbot.

In addition to providing food directly, the Food Depository connects its clients with public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly referred to as food stamps — and public medical benefits. Klein said the chatbot was designed to connect with people who utilize these benefits to find out whether they are in need of additional food assistance.

“Starting out, we just wanted to confirm whether this would even be an effective tool for communicating with our clients,” she said. “We’ve seen an overwhelming response so far, so what we want to see in this hackathon is how we can take it to the next level, and look at all the ways we can use it across all our programs.”

[We] wanted to confirm whether this would even be an effective tool for communicating with our clients.”

For organizations like the GCFD, chatbots provide a great alternative to email and smartphone apps. Nearly a quarter of Americans do not own a smartphone, according to a 2018 study by Pew Research Center, and this group overlaps substantially with the part of the population that experiences food insecurity. Only 5 percent of the population does not own any kind of cellphone, however.

Chatbot technology makes it possible for organizations serving vulnerable populations to communicate with clients via text message in a scalable way. In fact, mRelief, a Chicago-based social good startup, partners with local government programs, including the California Department of Social Services, to direct residents in need toward services they’re eligible for via text message.

The second challenge will be to uncover insights within the Food Depository’s rich data sets. Klein said her organization uses data to identify communities where hunger may go underreported, and to improve its ability to serve clients with particular needs. That could mean garnering deeper insights about the need for handicapped-accessible locations, and stocking more food items for clients with particular dietary needs.

The final challenge is to come up with new ways for the Food Depository to promote all of its services and make them easier for clients to access.

The Hackathon to End Hunger will take place at Strata Decision Technology’s offices in the Aon Center on Saturday, May 4. It is open to any member of the Chicago tech community, as well as to high school and college students.

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