Montgomery County merging data with maps, starting with food

Project seen as way to detect where resources are available and where they’re needed

By Kate S. Alexander, Staff Writer

A new online mapping system could help pinpoint Montgomery County’s grocery stores, food trucks, community gardens, farmers’ markets and food banks.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is creating a website that will use data to create a variety of one-stop maps, the first of which is for food.

The project was recommended by Montgomery County’s Interagency Technology Policy and Coordination Committee — which includes representatives of each county agency, the executive and the legislative branch — to complement the county’s initiative of posting raw data in a variety of areas online.

The project will use a geographical information system, or GIS, and information from sources such as Data Montgomery. Using the data, the planning staff will create maps that will be housed in one central location online, project manager and planning GIS manager Christopher McGovern said.

Data Montgomery is the county’s public portal that has raw county data on salaries, restaurant inspections and permits, making it easy for the public to get.

The Montgomery County Council provided park and planning with $70,000 to start the system.

Many maps are expected; the first will feature food.

The innovative program looks to use mapping tools to give better insight on food resources and demand, Dan Hoffman, the county’s chief innovation officer and member of the Montgomery County Food Council, said.

McGovern said a map could show a number of food sources, including community gardens and farmers’ markets. Places where people can find or open food trucks will be plotted on the map.

Hoffman said the county needs to continuously improve its GIS mapping skills.

“This GIS portal is a great opportunity for us to develop our skills in this area,” he said. “It’s a really important skill these days. It makes a lot more information user-friendly.”

The Food Council hopes to have handy features like the ability to enter a ZIP code and find the closest food source.

Even in wealthy Montgomery County, there are pockets where people don’t get all of the food they need. Those who connect the hungry with available food see the project’s pilot map as a key resource in that work.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin said Montgomery County is the first jurisdiction in the nation to create a network in which edible food that would otherwise be discarded is directed to those in need instead.

“The fact of the matter is there are a lot of people in the county who are ‘food insecure,’” Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said, referring to those residents who don’t always know where they will get their next meal. “We wanted to look at ways to connect all the food agencies in Montgomery County to serve the thousands of pounds of food not being used.”

The general definition of a food desert is a low-income area that does not have easy access to healthy, affordable food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This can include having to travel one mile to a supermarket in a suburban area or 10 miles in a rural area.

That definition doesn’t tell the full story in suburban areas such as Montgomery County because it has pockets of lower-income residents who don’t show up on a data map, said Amanda Behrens, the senior program officer of the food mapping system at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

“A mile is a long way to travel carrying groceries,” Behrens said. “We’re looking at a quarter-mile, thinking of what’s a realistic, walkable distance.”

Ervin said there is enough food to go around in the county, but it does not find its way to all of those who need it. She noted the map will most likely show a number of food access locations in the Rockville area, but a veritable “food desert” in the eastern part of the county.

“Lots of people who are struggling to put food on the table don’t have food readily available to them,” Ervin said. “They might find their way to food banks, but there’s not enough food there for them.”

The map provides a crucial first step to geographically identifying food-scarce areas, Ervin said. Once that is done, she said, the council can move to fill those voids.

The food map will help members of the Montgomery Food Recovery Work Group find would-be wasted food and deliver it to those who in need, work group Chair Jacki Coyle said. Coyle is executive director of Shepherd’s Table, a Silver Spring nonprofit that serves the homeless.

“We will be able to better serve people by providing nutritious food that would otherwise be thrown out,” she said.

Coyle said the map will be “vital for the community to make sure people don’t go hungry,” and will show the county’s commitment to the recovery plan.

“[The map] is a critical piece of the pie,” she said.

The Center for a Livable Future has been creating a statewide food access map since 2007, Behrens said. It was published online in 2011 at

Hoffman said the county’s map will go further.

“We’ve been working with Johns Hopkins to create a lot of maps, but those maps are static,” he said. “We’re looking to move this to something a little more dynamic, with data that’s continuously updated and refreshed.”

Maps are only the beginning of solving the food access problem, said Jenna Umbriac, director of nutrition programs at Manna Food Center. Umbriac also serves on the Food Council and the work group.

“I don’t think the food access problem ends with maps,” she said. “It begins with maps.”

Regardless of who creates the database or colors the maps, the important part is that the community acknowledges that some people in the county don’t have access to affordable food, Umbriac said.

She said she noticed from preliminary maps that there is lack of food access in the southeastern part of the county.

“Our role is to make people aware that there is a need,” Umbriac said. “If our maps give us an indication that there is food need, we can go in with volunteers and survey people’s perception of need. That could be an additional site for Manna or a distribution site for food.”

At a July 23 council hearing, McGovern testified in favor of implementing the new technology and the county’s expenditure of the $70,000 as a budget amendment.

County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring said at the hearing that she is “thrilled this project is coming forward.”

Marlena Chertock, Katie Pohlman and Jacob Bogage contributed to this story


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