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Where Is Food Insecurity Greatest In The D.C. Region? There's A Map For That

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Kids at the Marumsco Mobile Home Park in Woodbridge, Virginia, wait in line for their free lunch from the Kids Food Bus.
Lauren Ober/WAMU
Kids at the Marumsco Mobile Home Park in Woodbridge, Virginia, wait in line for their free lunch from the Kids Food Bus.

If you’re driving on Jefferson Davis Highway in Woodbridge, Virginia, it’s easy to miss the Marumsco Mobile Home Park. First, there’s no signage or street address out front. Second, it’s basically hidden in a gully behind an Auto Zone and a taco joint on the busy road.

Because of its location, the kids who live at Marumsco are basically trapped in the park during the summer. Most are children of Latino immigrants and many live in poverty. They need the services that the food bank provides, but they can’t get to them.

“This is a remote location for them,” said Amanda Brundidge, the mobile meals program coordinator for the Capital Area Food Bank. “They can’t cross the main street. And they have barriers that prevent them from going to the mobile sites.”

Zeroing in on hunger

Because Marumsco is tucked away out of view, it would have been hard for the food bank folks to find the kids. But using new mapping technology called the Hunger Heat Map, the food bank has been able to locate clusters of unmet food need in the region and deploy services, like the Kids Food Bus, to address those needs.

“It shows locations where they hunger is most prevalent or where there is more hunger,” Brundidge said. “And from there we were able to find four locations, two being the mobile homes.”

When you look at the Hunger Heat Map on a computer, it’s immediately apparent where the unaddressed need is. Big red patches cover places like Dale City and Gaithersburg indicating hungry people who aren’t getting served. For the food bank’s executive director Nancy Roman, that visibility makes all the difference.

The Capital Area Food Bank's Hunger Heat Map shows in stark relief where the greatest need is in the D.C. region. (CAFB)

“People really identify with maps. There’s this huge emotional human connection to a map that I think allows us to really connect people to what’s happening,” Roman said. “It’s funny — sometimes you can know these things, but when you see them they become more immediate.”

The Hunger Heat Map is unique to the Capital Area Food Bank. The concept is a pretty simple. The map shows layers of metrics like how much food is being distributed and where the need is greatest. Together, those layers tell the story of hunger in our region.

Michael Hollister designed the technology for the food bank. He says being able to identify where the gaps in service are has been critical.

“With the Hunger Heat Map, we’re able to see not only where the need is, but also what our impact is in the community,” Hollister said “And we’re able to assess after our impact, what is left to do.”

In the year or so that the heat map has been around, the food bank has used it to determine where to locate services, and to design new programs. Cecelia Vergaretti, the food bank’s Northern Virginia director, says that’s how her staff came up with the Kids Food Bus.

“We looked at the Hunger Heat Map and we said, 'Wow, look at all the spots that have high poverty and high food insecurity,'” she said. “And we challenged them and we said tell us how you would feed these kids down in Prince William County. It’s a whole lot different than Fairfax County."

Every weekday, the bus serves 200 kids, give or take, at four locations, including the Marumsco Mobile Home Park.

A Capital Area Food Bank distributes bagged lunches at the Marumsco Mobile Home Park. (Ihamna Valencia/Capital Area Food Bank)

Bringing food where there's hunger

On a recent morning, the big white bus painted with smiling fruits and vegetables rolls up, as kids play soccer in the park’s only green space. They’re waiting for their free bagged lunch, which they get every weekday in the summer.

One of the kids, Julian Ambriz, stops playing long enough to explain what’s in his lunch bag. Today it’s a salami and ham sandwich, a mozzarella stick, an apple, orange juice and milk.

And how is the lunch? “It’s actually pretty good,” he said.

Julian lives in one of the trailer homes with his parents and three siblings. His dad, a Mexican immigrant, works construction. His mom stays home to watch the kids. Julian says the food bus has been a welcome sight during the summer.

“There’s a lot of people who can’t really afford food. So it really helps us,” he said.

And with that, he takes a bite of his apple from his bagged lunch, chugs some milk and heads back to the makeshift soccer field. Were it not for the food bus and the tech that send it off into the world, Julian’s lunch today likely wouldn’t have been nearly this healthy. Or cheap.

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