Food insecurity has been an increasingly urgent challenge that has afflicted the Houston region, especially during recent crises like Hurricane Harvey, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Winter Storm Uri.

This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership blog.

Urban Harvest, a nonprofit that seeks to cultivate thriving communities through community gardening and access to healthy food, has been on a multi-year journey to become more data-driven in order to better provide healthy food options to all Houstonians. Last year, a partnership with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University helped them advance in their data-driven journey and improve food security for people in their region. Their story illustrates the payoff from collaboration between research partners and community organizations to further mutual goals, as well as guidance for other organizations seeking to build capacity to use data for community change.

Urban Harvest launched a mobile market in August 2020 to ensure access to healthy food throughout Houston’s most underserved areas. The mobile market acts as an information hub for community-based food resources and is a place where people can purchase double the amount of local produce with their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits (Urban Harvest’s Double Up Houston program). Urban Harvest needed timely data on areas with the greatest number of residents struggling with food insecurity, especially during the pandemic, to help identify locations of the mobile market that would reach the most people. To support the data collection and analysis, they applied for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Using Data to Inform Local Decisions on COVID-10 Response & Recovery grant program, enlisting the participation of Kinder Institute as a trusted research partner.

The joint research effort drew upon the strengths of the two organizations, centering Urban Harvest’s needs to inform their programming. Urban Harvest and Kinder collaborated on the collection of qualitative data, which included two focus groups, one in English and one in Spanish, with people who participate in SNAP. These focus groups covered how people made decisions in accessing food for themselves and their families, their grocery shopping habits and preferences, and the barriers they experience in getting healthy food. The Kinder team also collected administrative data from Urban Harvest on participants’ characteristics and how they access services from the Double Up Houston program and paired it with data on socioeconomic characteristics of key neighborhoods and locations (such as Double Up Houston sites, community centers, schools, and health clinics).

With the support of the Kinder Institute, Urban Harvest now uses a new ArcGIS online tool with all of the data from their joint project gathered, which helps Urban Harvest choose new sites or new organizational partnerships for the mobile market to have more extensive and more equitable community reach.

As Katie Wang, Program Manager at the Kinder Institute, shared: "We had a lot of conversations about why data was important, how [Urban Harvest] used the tool, that ultimately influenced how we designed the tool." In other words, Urban Harvest and the Kinder Institute collaborated to create a stronger overall product, exchange ideas to grow organizationally, and set the foundation for helping more people access healthy food.

Although Urban Harvest and the Kinder Institute made this process look easy and seamless, their effective partnership effort to collect data for improved services has been years in the making.

Building a trusting relationship with an academic research partner like the Kinder Institute was a part of the key to success for Urban Harvest to fostering a culture of data. This relationship began with the Kinder Institute providing technical assistance and intern support through their Community Bridges program. Over the years, practicing good communications and mutual respect have led to a true partnership of peers on equal footing. The investment they made in working together placed them in a strong position to apply for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant opportunity on short notice and quickly get the research off the ground.

This partnership is possible because Urban Harvest staff made the organizational journey to recognize the value of data to their mission, as illustrated by the graphic above. As Paula Balbontín, Urban Harvest Program and Development Manager, shared at a recent National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership event: “Since we started in 1994, it’s been a winding road. We started … just helping gardens become sustainable, or starting food markets, but there was not a culture of data... It was not a priority. Data was complicated, and not necessary, because we just needed to help people. We realized that if we didn’t have data, we would not be effective to our efforts.  We started taking data more seriously in 2018 when we hired a consulting company to develop a strategic plan.”

As Urban Harvest continues to build on their skills as data-driven decision makers, they are creating opportunities to share their lessons with others. It recently hosted the Data Driven Food Systems Round Table, where 20-plus nonprofit, research, and business partners met to discuss food insecurity through available data. Paula shared that this event “was a great opportunity to talk about how our organizations can be more efficient – everyone together – and how we can centralize data to be more effective for our target population.”

Overall, more places should invest in research and community partnerships as a powerful way to meet community needs both during crisis and in recovery. Research organizations who prioritize and support their community partners in developing strong data cultures and capacities are the most likely to create effective partnerships with community organizations.

We thank Urban Harvest and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research for their contributions to this blog post. The two organizations are one of the grantees of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Using Data to Inform Local Decisions on COVID-19 Response & Recovery program.