Link2Feed And The Technology of Food Assistance


Photo via Flickr

Photo via Flickr

Imagine you are sitting in a boat, going down a river. It’s a fairly wide river, it’s a nice day, you’re enjoying yourself.

Suddenly, there is a loud thump under your feet. The boat shakes and you land in the bottom of the boat. You weren’t paying attention to what was happening, you were lost in a daydream, enjoying the moment. But now, you’re confused and covered in water, because all of a sudden there is a hole in the bottom of the boat and you are taking on water. A lot of water.

What do you do?

If you are like me, you would start bailing water, and hope that there is someone else in the boat who can take the oars and row you to the shore. Or you could start rowing yourself and pray for land.

One thing you probably wouldn’t do is measure how big the hole is in the bottom of your boat. You wouldn’t try and determine the cause of the hole, you wouldn’t sit down and think about the long term implications. Your mind would almost certainly be on how do I not die, and not on how to prevent a similar experience.

Take a step back…

This post is obviously not about row boats. But, the metaphor describes a set of problems that many communities across Canada continue to experience. Let me explain.

There was a time when people in this community were able to adjust to rough spots in their lives. If they lost their jobs in the sixties and seventies, there were social supports, layers of protection keeping folks safe and dry and away from the rocks. But in the late eighties and early nineties, a lot of people found their industries shrinking or evaporating. Formerly stable lives were turned upside down, and all of our boats started sinking as recession and fiscal austerity, budget cuts and high levels of unemployment hit our neighbourhoods hard.

A lot of people saw this, and even though many were fighting to stay afloat themselves, they picked up buckets to try and bail their neighbours out. 30 years later, and we’re still bailing with no end in sight.

The new normal

So what first appeared as a crisis has become permanent and seemingly ‘normal,’ and over time, each community has developed its own way of helping.

Time flies when you’re busy, and in the calm moments, you may look around and wonder how this situation has become the status quo. How you adapt and adjust to this situation depends on your resources. The first places that opened their doors to share food probably had a method in mind, but as lines grew longer, ways of helping changed. The food available and the technology they were comfortable with also changed.

When food banks first opened their doors to the public, I’m sure many were using pen and paper files. In recent years, I have visited programs that still use paper files, and have no computers. However, phones today have far more computing power than some of the most advanced desk tops of about 15 or 20 years ago; many places will use one or more computers to keep track of people visiting, allocating food resources, do some case management, and maybe even have a blog or social media presence.

How we work

Food banks are not a unified group. They are made up of dedicated people, often volunteers, trying their best, often making it up as they go along. They mostly get by with a shoe string (or no string) budget and are under a lot of pressure and scrutiny. One place may have developed an in house database to manage the complex needs of the people they seek to help. Another might be a huge excel spread sheet (shudder) or even a series of documents with lists of people and addresses. Generating statistics and keeping track of trends, historical or emerging, on any large scale is a massive struggle, and prone to error, once you try and add stats from different places together.

Does it matter how big the hole is in the bottom of your boat?

For someone downstream, trying to help people get out of their sinking water craft, it does. How major is the problem? How do you describe it as such? How many people are needed to bail out water? How many people will sink before they get to the shore?

“There are a bunch of people sinking! Help!” Doesn’t always get through, when their are lots of other people, sounding the alarm about a lot of other problems.

So if I have a bucket and I want to help, should I take it over to the burning building, or the river to help people who are sinking? Who needs help the most? How many people are in trouble? How many boats are we talking about here?

For someone in a position to potentially help with money, or legislation and policy or all three, people in sinking boats are one of many problems competing for their attention.

A fix to the problem?

This is the situation that the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) found itself in. The OAFB is the provincial body that represents the food bank ‘hubs’ of Ontario, places like the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. On a yearly basis they take all the stats and reports from members and distill it into the Hunger Count. This is the report that people will reference when they want to talk about the magnitude of hunger in our Province. References to it make their way into academic papers, the news paper, online and TV news reports, and can often be referenced by government when trying to gauge the magnitude of one or many different social problems that relate to it.

Anyone who has had the job to sit on large amounts of information, will know how difficult it is to keep errors from creeping in. We’re all people, and our fingers don’t always listen to what our brains would like them to type into databases (or spreadsheets or documents!). Anyone who has had the misfortune of trying to mash different databases in different formats together will tell you the headaches involved.

So, when OAFB was able to access some funds through the Trillium Foundation, they decided to move ahead with a cloud based database developed for food banks and get all of the member agencies of all the food banks in the province to get on board as well. That database is called Link2Feed.

In the clouds…

Link2Feed is something that a few members had already been using, and had enjoyed great success both understanding their clients better by being able to parse demographic information, but also through simplifying the application process and using it as a tool to share vital information with the public.

Here, in this region, and at the House of Friendship, we will begin adopting Link2Feed in the coming months. The entire emergency food assistance network hopes to be online by the early summer.

At the Food Hamper Program, we are looking forward to leaving behind our very old database. The more streamlined Link2Feed will simplify report generation and help us to better understand the needs and experiences of the people who turn to us for help. Instead of different systems at 70 plus programs, Link2Feed is one database for the entire region.

Down to earth

Long term, Link2Feed will eliminate the challenges of creating reliable statistics about the extent and degree of hunger in this province. It will be possible to create many of them at the push of a button. To return to my original point, it will let us know, each day, how big the hole in the bottom of the boat is. We will not need to rely as much on older census data (awesome as it is, there are many years between them) when talking about trends in food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. We will be able to keep decision makers accountable, as they have to choose between competing voices, and as they decide what to prioritize when deciding how to work on solutions to the problem of hunger in our community.


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3 Responses to “Link2Feed And The Technology of Food Assistance”

  1. Who Represents Hunger, Part 3 | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] of people using food banks is hard to pin down.  It may be getting a little easier in Ontario, as I discussed in a recent post about Link 2 Feed, but if we want to talk to elected representatives locally about the number of people they […]

  2. After 30 Years of Food Banking How Are We Doing? | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] are rapidly closing in on the 1 year anniversary of adopting Link 2 Feed.  If you recall, we blogged about it last year and some of the implications of using it for the future.  Look forward to a bit of analysis next […]

  3. Link 2 Feed And a Full Year of Food Assistance | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] year ago, I wrote about Link 2 Feed, a new on-line database that the local  Food Assistance Network was adopting.  Well, a year […]

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