Seventeen million Americans skip at least one meal a day. When they can eat, they have to choose between lesser quantities of higher-quality food and larger quantities of less-nutritious, processed foods. But the band of consequence is much wider. At the individual level, hunger increases the likelihood that a child will drop out of school, lowering her lifetime earning potential.  At the social level, in 2010 alone, food insecurity cost America $167.5 billion from lost economic productivity, avoidable health-care expenses and the cost of social-services programs.

Bridging the gap

"Food insecurity cost America $167.5 billion from lost economic productivity, avoidable health-care expenses and the cost of social-services programs."

We can and we must bring technology to create a sustained conversation between government and citizens to engage more Americans in the fight against hunger. Identifying who is genuinely in need cannot be done as well by a centralized government bureaucracy — even one with regional offices — as it can through a distributed network of individuals and organizations able to pinpoint with on-the-ground accuracy where the demand is greatest. Just as Ushahidi uses crowdsourcing to help locate and identify disaster victims, it should be possible to leverage the crowd to spot victims of hunger.

It should also be possible to apply predictive analytics to newly available sources of data, such as that regularly gathered by supermarkets and other vendors, in ways that make it easier to offer discounts to those most in need. Researchers at Cornell-Tech, for example, are experimenting with the use of data about food purchased using a credit card loaded with SNAP benefits as a mechanism for identifying opportunities to remedy food insecurity, including personalized advice about healthier purchasing alternatives.

New tools, new possibilities

It should also be possible to analyze nonprofits' tax returns, which are legally open and available to all, to support the creation of integrated maps of where efforts by organizations serving those need leave gaps that need to be closed by other efforts.

The range of new tools and approaches is stunning: social science experiments using incentives for "nudging" people to change their behaviors, public-private collaborative partnerships to help people to produce their own food, financial and real estate arrangements to make more community gardens possible and technology to help scale up neighbor-helping-neighbor programs.