The blog of the Urban Institute
August 19, 2021

Three Strategies to Reach Food Insecure Communities across the Digital Divide

August 17, 2021

To comply with social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations addressing food insecurity had to forgo or modify in-person services, and some turned to new technology-based strategies, such as online ordering to facilitate curbside pick-ups or videoconferencing to conduct nutrition education sessions. But not everyone seeking food assistance has access to these new technology-based solutions, as many do not have computers, smart phones with data packages, or home-based internet service. 

This digital divide is more pronounced for communities of color, with white adults more likely than Black or Latinx adults to have a computer and home internet. (We use the term “Latinx” to describe people of Latin American descent throughout this blog to be inclusive of all Latin American identities, but we also recognize that not every member of this population identifies with this term.) Although public Wi-Fi spots may fill the gap for some households, they are often underrepresented in areas with low-income residents, cost-burdened renter households, Black and Latinx people, and families with children, many of whom struggle to put food on the table, especially during the pandemic. In some rural communities where developing broadband infrastructure over larger, more sparsely populated areas is expensive, as many as one in four people lack internet access, compared with fewer than 2 percent of people in cities.

For food assistance programs, it’s important to create multiple avenues for overcoming technological barriers to engage with participants. We spoke with organizations promoting food access across the country that prioritized reaching food insecure populations with limited technology access during the pandemic. From our conversations, we have distilled three successful strategies for organizations promoting food access to overcome digital technology barriers.

  1. Pick up the phone
    For many organizations that serve people without smartphones, sufficient internet access, or the ability to join videoconferencing calls, calling participants can be a viable option to stay in touch.     

    One rural Mississippi provider that runs a produce prescription program switched from in-person shopping to weekly phone calls to take participants’ orders, which allowed participants to retain some choice in the produce they received. Providers noted the importance of being patient with participants who frequently missed calls. In areas that serve clients with limited phone minutes, organizations can go one step further and provide phone minutes to participants.  

    Before the pandemic, the Mississippi program also planned to provide one-on-one nutrition education sessions. Instead, dieticians conducted sessions over the phone and found that phone calls led to fewer missed or canceled appointments than video calls. Even when in-person appointments became an option again, many clients preferred the phone option because of the flexibility it allowed them, particularly those with limited transportation access and busy schedules. 
  2. Communicate through paper flyers or surveys

    To ensure everyone received the same information regardless of digital access, some providers pivoted to communicating on paper, often including handouts in food packages during pickup or delivery.

    One health clinic providing produce for patients found paper intake surveys more accessible for participants than the online version. The clinic also advertised the program with brochures and posters in its lobby. Other organizations that provided produce boxes to participants included recipe cards and nutrition information in the boxes instead of in-person cooking and nutrition classes.

  3. Harness the power of social networks   
    The pandemic left many organizations looking for new ways to connect with participants and partners outside of in-person programming. Many found digital marketing and recruitment did not work for people with unreliable technology access, so they strengthened their social networks and community ties instead. The Chickasaw Nation developed a mobile market program to reach tribal members with food access barriers and was able to maintain strong connections with families who tend to move around and frequently change phone numbers by reaching out through secondary contacts and focusing on relationships in communities. These efforts mitigated some program attrition as a result. 
      
    In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), which primarily served Hmong immigrant farmers, responded to the growing racial justice movement by coordinating with organizations serving the area’s low-income and Black communities to make the HAFA produce box program available to these residents. By leveraging the connections to their respective communities, those organizations enrolled many new participants in HAFA’s program. 
      
    And at another organization, a front-desk staff member participated in the farmers’ market incentive program and shared her positive experience with patients, which the organization believed had a positive impact on program enrollment. Although recruitment through nondigital means was sometimes slower, providers recognized that word of mouth often enabled greater trust building and listening between providers and the broader community.

Listening and adapting to community needs is critical regardless of strategy

Although food service providers found these strategies fruitful, they also noted that sometimes programs must be in-person and were able to find creative ways to safely provide food and other programming when that was the case. To provide safe, in-person programming, providers moved entire food pantries outside, conducted feedback surveys, and hosted farmers’ markets while observing social distancing guidelines. Partners also delivered food to participants’ homes if they could not make it to the food pantry or farmers’ market. Recognizing when digital programming won’t work for participants and adapting to provide safe in-person options that literally meet people where they are was critical during the pandemic. Providers must listen and adapt to community needs and offer multiple avenues for engagement.

In cases where digital access was possible, organizations like the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan’s (ITCM) relied on social media platforms commonly used by the tribal community for virtual outreach and education. ITCM also offered training to participating tribes monthly to produce their own cooking videos, which were edited and published as a YouTube playlist, enabling participants to share and preserve culturally significant foods and dishes. These approaches required patience and time from tribal community health staff, who were frequently asked to assist with other clinic and community health priorities, but ultimately allowed these organizations to continue programming and reach their target population.

Even as in-person services resume, retaining these strategies for using and modifying digital technology can ensure food-access programs continue to reach communities most in need.


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IMMOKALEE, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 16: Food is distributed during a mobile food pantry in the agricultural community of Immokalee on February 16, 2021 in Immokalee, Florida. The Harry Chapin Food Bank has weekly distributions in the town which has a poverty rate of over 40% and has a population made up primarily of agricultural workers. The mobile food pantry gives out food packages for over 800 families after seeing a surge in need since the Covid-19 outbreak. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
 

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