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Food for Thought: Nielsen Data Helps Feeding America Connect With In-Need Food Banks

For any organization, the ability to make strategic decisions based on past performance is critical for long-term success. Rather than simply reacting to everyday obstacles, data can help organizations realize the actionable insights that will turn short- and long-term goals into reality.

Feeding America® is a nationwide network of 200 member food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs fighting to end hunger in the U.S. One member food bank, Feeding America Southwest Virginia (FASWVA), recognized it needed to better understand how it could more effectively work with its more than 180 partner agencies in the area to carry out their shared mission of fighting hunger in Southwest Virginia.

Without the time, staff or expertise to carry out this work on its own, the nonprofit turned to Nielsen to provide assistance through skills-based volunteering under our global corporate social responsibility program, Nielsen Cares. At the national level, since 2010, we’ve shared food pricing information with Feeding America to help them better understand the impact that food cost can have on food-insecure individuals. Susan Ostreicher, manager of product operations at Nielsen, led the team of three Nielsen volunteers along with Rachel Ginsburg, associate client director at Nielsen, and Daniela Santisteban, analyst at Nielsen.

The Nielsen team focused on leveraging their expertise in data collection and analysis to help FASWVA with this deep dive into how partner agencies—local food pantries and meal programs—were interacting with FASWVA. Their study included a broad range of topics, such as the agencies’ satisfaction with the quality and variety of canned goods they receive from FASWVA, the opportunity for additional training in key topics, and where agencies with extra capacity could expand services to nearby counties with unmet needs.

“We work with a large network of diverse partner agencies in our fight against hunger, and each agency has its own distinct set of strengths and limitations,” said Alexandra Greatsinger, AmeriCorps VISTA. “Coming into the project, we lacked the necessary tools to identify network-wide needs and opportunities for individual agencies to grow. The Nielsen team helped us develop a framework for evaluation that enabled us to pinpoint key players within our network and locate areas of inequitable distribution and unmet need.”

By surveying a group of FASWVA’s partner agencies, the team of Nielsen volunteers worked with FASWVA staff over a months-long project to identify the key data points that would allow FASWVA and its partner agencies to better work together. The Nielsen team’s key findings for FASWVA included:

  • Morale is high among staff and volunteers, driven by the desire to help those in need.
  • Roughly one-third of agencies get more than 90% of their funding from a single donor.
  • Two-thirds of all food in the area is distributed by 25 large agencies.
  • Approximately one-third of agencies are not currently stable. However, among stable agencies, two-thirds have extra capacity or potential for growth.
  • Nearly all agencies with extra capacity could accept more produce, and over half could also distribute and transport more food.
  • Seventy percent of agencies currently have access to the Internet.

Through its analysis, the Nielsen team was able to identify agencies that required additional help with financial and structural stability, as well as agencies in communities where local needs remained unmet. By mapping this out for FASWVA, the Nielsen team was able to hone in on agencies that required help with stability or growth, as well as agencies that could expand their services to provide support to clients in need.

“The results from the study will be used to design capacity building and expansion strategies that are specific to agency needs,” said Greatsinger. “Knowing which agencies are primed for growth and expansion will also enable more proactive and productive communication between FASWVA staff and our partner agencies. Together, this will ultimately help us distribute more food to more families in need throughout southwestern Virginia.”

“Working with FASWVA gave us the opportunity to use our knowledge and skills to help fight hunger,” said Ostreicher. “We’ve volunteered at food banks packing and sorting, but this project opened our eyes to a new level of impact—meeting additional needs of the food bank through skills-based volunteering.”

Photo credit: Feeding America Southwest Virginia 2016.