What I loved about this technology is that most people assumed that Black people were going to be the people most affected by the benefits decrease, but that is not what we saw on the map.
New Hanover County Ensures Food Access to Communities with GIS
In 2023, the temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that was put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, known as emergency allotments, ended nationwide. This meant that many households that relied on these benefits would suddenly need to seek other avenues for affordable healthy food. New Hanover County, North Carolina, wanted to ensure that staff were prepared for the needs of SNAP recipients once these extended benefits ended. The county turned to geographic information system (GIS) technology to visualize which communities would be impacted the most. Officials mapped and identified food deserts and used that data to work with local food banks to extend access to residents, improving health equity for the county.
COVID-19 Increases Need for Health Equity Initiatives
In many communities across the US, the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered disparities that are now impossible to ignore. With cases of COVID-19 nationwide predominantly impacting people of color and service workers, many communities sought to understand how they could roll out vaccines equitably when the time came and how to continue addressing the disparities that were uncovered. When North Carolina was allotted the first round of COVID-19 vaccines, New Hanover County leaders were concerned about the short supply and whether marginalized groups should receive access to them first.
Leveraging tools in Esri’s ArcGIS Pro, the county overlaid data such as demographics, race, age, and access to transportation, then mapped commonalities in certain neighborhoods. This provided staff with the insight to ensure that the neighborhoods they identified had easy access to vaccines. The county partnered with trusted local organizations such as churches and community centers to install pop-up vaccination centers where residents could drive through and receive the vaccine. Like many other jurisdictions nationwide, this was only the beginning of the county’s health equity work.
GIS Exposes Inaccuracies in Health Assumptions
New Hanover County's chief equity officer, Linda Thompson, was motivated to continue working with GIS tools to advance health equity when the issuance went out regarding the decrease in SNAP benefits.
“Once I learned that the decrease in benefits was set to impact 15,000 households, I knew we had to do something,” said Thompson. “So we went back to our GIS staff and asked for their help in visualizing this problem.”
GIS enabled Thompson and her team to visualize multiple data layers and see the households that would be impacted by the decrease in benefits.
“What I loved about this technology is that most people assumed that Black people were going to be the people most affected by the benefits decrease, but that is not what we saw on the map,” continued Thompson.
The GIS staff and the chief equity officer worked alongside the health equity coordinator and the social services team within the public health department. Together they mapped current food bank locations to see their proximity to households in need. After mapping grocery stores, food banks, and free food distribution programs, they found that the rural communities within the county were the ones most in need of assistance. These people ranged from single white women and seniors to Latinx, exposing inaccuracies in the assumptions government officials often made about disparities.
To understand the extent of the issue and pinpoint the locations of the most vulnerable communities, the team gathered poverty data from the US Census Bureau's as well as local information about residential areas, public housing, and affordable-housing communities. Using spatial analysis tools in ArcGIS Pro, the team identified areas with a high concentration of low-income households. The results were compared with locations of food resources across the county to assess food accessibility.
Overlaying this data enabled the team to go back to community organizations and share the information with them using a set of custom-built web applications. The maps showed which areas had difficulty accessing food banks or similar resources.
“Seeing the data on a map takes gender, race, and even politics out of the issue,” said Thompson. “It allows us to see our communities as just humans in need. This is what we needed.”
Accurately identifying food deserts also moved the county to build a grocery store. The government will pay the brick-and-mortar expenses as well as partner with a local co-op that will manage the store.
“Knowing that our work aids better decision-making and supports vulnerable communities is truly satisfying,” said Tyler Lockamy, New Hanover County’s GIS solutions engineer. “I'm thrilled to witness the growing acceptance of GIS, as it strengthens our community.”
Data-Driven Decisions: Moving Equity Forward with GIS Tools
This is only the beginning for New Hanover County. Staff have seen what adopting a geographic approach has done for the county's services and are looking to expand the approach beyond SNAP benefits.
Staff are currently starting to work with the emergency management department to map county residents with special needs. This allows emergency personnel to prioritize these residents in the event of a crisis and ensure that they are not forgotten and can be easily located. This work is also influencing other departments within the county to leverage GIS staff for other public health emergencies. Recently, some wells within the county were contaminated, and the county is looking for an innovative approach to ensure that local communities are safe. GIS tools empower organizations to make data-driven decisions and allow for effective interventions to ensure health equity for all.