Everyone remembered the e-mail. It landed last July on a Friday. At organizations like this one, which command more than 100 employees, notes announcing someone’s departure usually don’t create much of a stir. But this one did. It involved a young analyst named Michael Hollister. He said he was leaving the Capital Area Food Bank.
Nancy Roman, who had taken over the food bank’s top slot after finishing up a stint with the United Nations, read the note with an escalating sense of alarm. She needed Hollister. He represented that rare breed of nonprofit worker: the techie. So she stood up from her desk, bounded up a flight of stairs and skidded to a halt in front of Hollister.
“She asked what she would have to do to get me to stay,” Hollister, a scruffy 27-year-old, remembered. “So I pretty much got to write my own job description.”
That description could be summed up with one word: maps.
The conversation sparked what local experts call a pioneering technology that could one day revolutionize the war on hunger. This conflict has historically been one of attrition. Success and failure were difficult to define. And the process of the work went something like this: Find the hungry people, give them food, repeat. The job, Roman said, could sometimes feel like trying to fill a “black hole of need.”
Bringing light into this black hole was Hollister, who Roman calls her “whiz kid.” In short, Hollister understood the properties — and power — of big data. The synthesis of data sets has already upended the political and advertising world, introducing finely honed tools to sift out targets and potential markets in unlikely places.
And now, Hollister and his organization want to do the same thing for hunger. So the young programmer has mashed up data sets from myriad sources to discover which regional pockets are most in need of food. It turns out, many of them aren’t where most people might expect. They’re in the suburbs.
“The perception of the suburbs is that it’s where the middle-class and affluent families get to have access to safe streets and schools and a lawn and not have poor people near them,” said Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied what is called the suburbanization of poverty. “But that perception has been outdated for a while.”
This trend has manifested across the country, and the District has been no exception. At the turn of the millennium, more than 214,000 people lived below the poverty level in the District’s suburbs. But that figure has since surged nearly 40 percent, according to data provided by the Brookings Institution. More than 346,000 residents live in suburban poverty. In that same time frame, the number of urban residents living in poverty also rose — but at a much slower clip. In 2000, more than 135,000 impoverished residents lived in Arlington, Alexandria and the District. Since then, that figure has risen by only 10 percent, to nearly 150,000.
Surging population growth in the suburbs can partly explain this trend. But Ross said it’s more complicated than that. Suburbs may grant residents their lawns, but they also maroon them far from high-paying jobs and without much in the way of public transportation. Economists call this effect “job sprawl.” The greater the urban sprawl, the lower the rate of upward social mobility among the community’s poorest children.
Then the recession hit. It further entrapped the poor. While the manufacturing industry, which had long girded many suburbs, withered under the strain of broad economic forces, urban communities rebounded upon the strength of emergent, high-skilled industries. Then the jobs that swooped in to replace those high-paying, suburban manufacturing jobs either paid substantially less or required advanced skills.
“One question is, what are the nature of jobs in suburban areas?” Ross said. “Those that serve the local population and are driven by population growth — say, in retail or restaurants — don’t pay that well. You can see Prince George’s County and more outlying counties . . . have the highest share of low-skill jobs, meaning those are held by workers with a high school diploma or less, and those jobs are not going to pay very much, on average.”
The suburbanization of poverty has complicated the effort in fighting it. For one, this shift has stranded some of the region’s poorest residents far from resources that can help them. Earlier incarnations of poverty clustered in urban environments, spawning robust social networks that serviced those communities. But this nascent suburbanization of poverty frays that network. The suburban poor aren’t just spread out — they’re difficult to find, inhabiting the shadows of even the wealthiest communities across Montgomery County.
That’s where the Capital Area Food Bank and Hollister’s map come in. Hollister, who was raised in Fairfax Station, never set out to work with data or maps. He studied psychology in college. But then, after spending a year in AmeriCorps, he landed a job working on child hunger inside the Capital Area Food Bank, the interior of which feels more Silicon Valley than nonprofit. It teems with hip-looking millennials scurrying about, laptop in hand.
Hollister started working on maps “as a side project,” but it quickly became something more. Then came February of this year, when Roman vested him with a new task: create a heat map. Visualize regional hunger. The food bank, which has a direct or indirect hand in almost every regional food program, knew it was missing some people. But it wanted to empirically define where they lived — and who they were. So Hollister got to work.
“We wanted to see the gaps here,” Roman said, “and learn what else do we have left to do.”
Hollister collected numerous data sets, pulling this one from the U.S. Census Bureau, extracting that one from internal records, drawing another one from national nonprofit reports. The first task was to define hunger in the region. Using software that retail companies employ to analyze prospective markets, he sketched out an unsurprising map. The region’s hungriest parts landed exactly where you’d expect: in the District’s 7th and 8th wards and just across the border in Prince George’s County.
Then Hollister built another map. This one represented the work of the Capital Area Food Bank and its 500 partners, which together serve more than 500,000 people in the region. The places those organizations serve almost exactly mirrored the first map, with the most supplies pouring into Southeast Washington and Prince George’s.
But then things got interesting. Hollister overlaid the two maps, and a whole new geography emerged. “We were all surprised to see how many red spots there are in every county,” Roman said. “There is a lot of work to be done in the suburbs. . . . We don’t know what the answer is to every red spot, but we know where the work is.”
To prove the point, Hollister pointed to upscale Reston. “You wouldn’t think there would be a high need in Reston,” Hollister said. “But look at it out there.” Parts of it glowed red on the map, with an annual unmet need of more than 150,000 pounds of food.
These maps, Roman said, now guide every decision the region’s largest food bank makes, whether it’s where to target resources or with whom to build partnerships. It also crystallizes regional obstacles, such as when Route 1 bifurcates areas in need throughout Prince William County. “Not surprisingly,” Roman said, “a lot of the hunger that’s unmet is in the places that’s hardest to get.”
The technology sketches the contours of what has become an emerging struggle against hunger and poverty, Roman said. And it’s technology she hopes to export on a national level. “We want to share this broadly,” she said. “This map allows you to see the hunger that is no longer — and the hunger that remains.”
So this time, Roman said, the job doesn’t feel so much like a black hole.