008: Feeding Hungry Children with Text Messages

using the Whole Whale PodcastWe talk with Jason Wilson from No Kid Hungry about their unique text messaging program and how it is connecting families with free lunches for their children over the summer. A fun story that goes beyond text-to-donate campaigns and thinks about programmatic impact.

Additional Resources

Pew Research cell phone activities

According to Pew Internet Research – 90% of Americans have a cell phone, 60% of those have access to the internet. Many nonprofits hear these numbers and glaze over or feel that they are too resource constrained to do much about it. This is evident when you consider that only 16% of nonprofit’s have a mobile optimized donation page (Nonprofit Scorecard 2013). If a donate page, a page that literally drives revenue, isn’t inspiring a shift to mobile then we’re in trouble.

I think we sell mobile short when we stop at mobile web/apps and don’t consider the power of that other handy thing that phones do, which is text messaging! Try out No Kid Hungry’s text messaging system – Text “Food” to the number 877877.


Episode 8

This is Using the Whole Whale. The podcast that brings you stories about data and technology in the nonprofit world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the Chief Whaler of wholewhale.com. Thanks for joining us.

Speaker 1: What if I can tell you that there is a way to feed children in the United States who are going hungry simply by using text messaging. I think where our heads immediately jump to is alright, who do I have to my money to now? How much is it going to cost?

Welcome to episode eight of Using the Whole Whale. Today we are going to be talking with Jason Wilson of nokidhungry.org. He is the Associate Director of Digital Communication there and actually, he’s doing this but not in the way you think. Let’s talk to Jason.

Music Plays

Speaker 1: OK. I’m here today with Jason Wilson from nokidhungry.org. Jason, tell me what you’re up to. Who are you? What do you do?

Speaker 2: Yeah, No Kid Hungry is the campaign of Shares Trade. We are, simply put, ending child hunger in America. We know that there’s enough food out there, truly a question of how do you get access to that food? How do you make sure all the kids that need the food and nutrition, how do they get access to it? It’s about educating families about shopping smart on a budget, healthy eating, what does that look like from like cool grains to checking unit pricing and food labels. Then it’s about awareness. Making sure families know and kids know about the programs available out there about the great resources that already exist so they can take better advantage of them. What we like to say here is it’s about getting every kid healthy food every day. That’s the simple piece of it. My role in that is from, obviously from a digital perspective, so I focus all of our social media, electronic communications, website, mobile, texting all of those efforts live with my team. We’re all part of a larger, grand team that thinks about what’s the best way to raise the most awareness. How to also have the greatest impact with some innovative tools that we’re working with around texting. Also, some really cool web tools that we’ve got as well.

Speaker 1: Great, so I chased you down today because I know you’re doing some clever things with texting. Give us some more context. Can you give me top line numbers on say, impact and size of the organization in regard to staff?

Speaker 2: Yeah, absolutely. Our staff is just about 200 staff members now. That includes about 180 here at our headquarters in Washington, D.C. Looking actually beautiful today, which is rare after the winter we’ve had. Then, outside inside D.C. we’ve had satellite staff and anywhere from California, San Francisco to Boston. Colorado and Maryland have some concentrated efforts for us. Also, we have some great staff in Arkansas, that are doing the work in the field. Our impact numbers, we have connected since we started the campaign, we’ve connected 125 million meals to kids around the country. Essentially, kids are getting, as a result of the campaign and the work that we’re doing, have gotten 125 million more meals. That’s just since November of 2010. What we’re really trying to do is push the barriers around the numbers. Right now about 50% of the kids that are eligible for it, actually get a free school breakfast or reduced price school breakfast. We’re trying to push that number up past 70% here. We’re also talking about summer meals. About 21 million kids are eligible for free meals when school’s out. They don’t really have access to those breakfasts or that lunch anymore. Only about 3 million of those 21 million that are eligible actually get that food. So take advantage of that program that’s there in their neighborhood. What we’re really trying to do is push those numbers around that. A great example of that is like in Arkansas last year, Arkansas saw the greatest increase in number of meals served throughout the summer in 2013 . That includes all 50 states, raw numbers. So you’re talking about including states like California and New York and Texas that have huge programs. More meals, additional meals were served in Arkansas in 2013 than in any other state. We’re making progress, definitely. We have a goal of ending childhood hunger in Maryland and Arkansas, as sort of proof of concept states. Then really trying to roll it out within the next couple of years, really trying to push it into other states. Perpetuating this model we know is working in states like Maryland and Arkansas.

Speaker 1: You guys are obviously doing some incredible work. Thank you, those are brilliant numbers there. One of the other things that puts you in the minority is in 2013 there’s some data on, from nonprofit scorecard that said, only 84% of nonprofits and their donation fees were not mobile optimized. I see that you are in the minority because you are not only optimized but you’re also thinking about text messaging. Can you give us, I guess the current strategy in which you approach mobile in regards to nokidhungry.org?

Speaker 2: Yeah, so there’s like two aspects. One you mention around how we get more people to donate and get engaged so we have a fully pledged mobile optimized apps center. I can’t say the experience is as good as we’d like it to be but I’m a bit of a perfectionist there. Then the more critical piece for us is looking at mobile from programmatic perspective. So around summer meals…

Speaker 1: So I have to jump in really quickly here. I get incredibly excited because I start talking about donations and of course he brings it back to we’re going to use mobile from a programmatic perspective. I have to play it again.

Speaker 2: looking at mobile from a programmatic perspective.

Speaker 1: There it is. All to often we’re thinking about texting and new technology for the perspective of how do we get more donors, instead these guys are making a serious impact. Let’s see how they’re doing it.

Speaker 2: How do we get more kids access to those summer meals? Really it’s like an awareness game. When we first started looking at this in 2011, we did it from a perspective of let’s find out if in one place all of the lists, like excel sheets, .pdfs, where the summer meals sites are in every state. We were dismayed, is probably the softest word, shocked and a little bit outraged that there was seven states (that I won’t name here) that we could not even find information for that was within the last three years, for summer meal sites. So if somebody wanted to find that information online, they couldn’t even find it. As you probably know, calling 311 or state numbers is very difficult. We started out by trying to build a map and then collecting information from every state on where they were serving summer meals sites. We had some data both from the discernible trusts that basically all of their wonderful internet research and anecdotal research from the field that set up. Most of our people that need this information don’t have regular access to a computer that has internet or smart phone but they did have phones that they could text and they texted heavily on those phones. So what we did in 2012, was kick off a pilot program where we did 13 states and two cities, New Orleans and New York City, where we grabbed all of the summer meals site information we could. We put it into a database that someone could access by texting a short code. It would ask them what their address was, then it would text them back the address and contact information of two or three of the closest summer meals sites to them.

Speaker 1: Just to make sure everyone’s following, a short code is just a short phone number. So in the case of nokidhungry, their short code was 877-877 and the keyword is food. That means you put “food” into the message body of your text and then you text it to 877-877. Next, they automatically reply back with, “Hey! Send us your zip code.” Then that’s sent to their system, it looks up against that database they just talked about and gives me the closest food opportunities to where I am. Alright, let’s get back.

Speaker 2: depending upon the area. In cities like New York City, within half a mile we could set the radius and it would text them back the summer sites closest to them within half a mile because we figured that was sort of a safe, easy walking distance. Then in rural areas, like in Arkansas and Texas, we spread the radius out a little bit more. We assume that there might be some capacity around being able to drive out there.

Speaker 1: So, going back to the genesis of when you were collecting the right information and then at that key moment, like we have this information, we got a map, it’s the most up to date map of where we can provide these services and connect people with these services. Why not just build an app? That’s what Uber does. If I want a taxi, I just type it in. Why not invest in an app people can just download and use?

Speaker 2: Right, so I think one of the biggest challenges for that was simply a matter of who was accessing the information. We had that research that said families didn’t really have reliable access to the internet or smart phones or the ones that were really, critically in need of finding that information. So we thought it would really be best to start where they already were, which is texting. We’ve talked in recent years and actually just as recently as last week about how we now turn this into an app that also does the same thing. Although, I don’t think texting is going to go away. We showed that roughly our cookie matter participants, our families that are in need of this type of service. 76% of them we did some initial sort of a deep dive on the need here, who are using smart phones in 2012 that were still using smart phones, or not smart phones, using phones that had text capabilities only but no internet connectivity. It was definitely an area that we saw the medium needed match where our participants were.

Speaker 1: That’s a great point. So really great use, really great communication tool to choose because obviously these feature phones are over indexed for low income communities, which are the ones you obviously have to reach. As oppose to the folks that wait on line at the Apple store for the new iPhone whatever S.

Speaker 2: Exactly.

Speaker 1: So they can play Angry Birds. Sorry, Candy Crush ad nausium. Bring me to some of the outcomes of this project. What is success look like? How have people been using it? How are you measuring impacts with regards to this program?

Speaker 2: Sure. In 2012 when we launched it, we just had like I said those two cities and 13 states. We had 24,000 text messages sent to the system. That really is roughly about 17,000 unique individuals. So a lot of people, a good percentage actually came back into expect to find that information at a later date from the summer. That was with only that handful of states and cities. We were able to expand to 37 states that were part of the texting program in 2013. Our number of texters doubled to just about 35,000 and then the number of text messages also doubled to about 48,000. That’s like the good, hard number there as well. In 2013 we were actually able to connect with the National Hunger Hotline, which is a phone number you can call anywhere and it can connect you with the summer meals site. So we tapped into their database and not only had some of our community partners that had the summer meals sites addresses and information that we were collecting. We had them send it directly to the National Hunger Hotline. So not only did they have that on when somebody called in but we also had all of that right available in the text program as well. As a result of our efforts there were another 3,000 calls that we generated to the National Hunger Hotline. So I look at those as people who tried to text, couldn’t find the information or not quite the information they wanted but they still had another outlet. A toll free number that they could call and find the information that the needed, which I think I really critical. Also, we helped the National Hunger Hotline jump their database to summer meals sites that they could tell people about from 18,000 in 2012 to over 42,000 individual summer meals sites around the country in 2013. Those types of numbers are really fantastic. They represent the big picture but really what we’re talking about, what I think is the most compelling story to me, is a story that we got of a young boy named Connor in Arkansas. We viewed his family actually for a larger project. His family knew about, basically found out about, our text to find summer meals site program and previously didn’t know there were summer meals available even anywhere near them and found summer meals site for Connor to go to for the entire summer. Essentially, he was getting fed throughout the entire summer as a result of just the summer meals sites text program. I think those are the types of stories that really, I hope to collect. The type of information that I think is most helpful in figuring out that we’ve had an impact. I see even, you know, beyond that, there’s data that shows that a family spends an average of $300 more, in the summer when school’s out, feeding their families because they don’t have access to those school meals. So you know, anything that we can do around that to relieve some of that pressure and anxiety around summer. It just helps a kid have a healthy summer and a happy summer and let’s them be a kid, which I think is the ultimate goal for us.

Going beyond sort of what’s next there, we really want to find out at the site level, the summer meal site level are we driving up the number of kids that are coming every day? With the texting program. That’s sort of the tough nut to crack for us because it requires this level of tracking that we don’t quite yet have the capacity for. What we’re really hoping is that we can build that in some key area, especially our proof of concept states like Arkansas and Maryland. And build a little bit of capacity by saying, OK, on the summer meal site level did we drive more people there because of text messaging? Were going to do that this summer and hopefully, roll that out wider next year. So it’s kind of this

Speaker 1: It’s a really wonderful story about what it means to you to really connect families with these types of resources. Currently, I believe you use mobile comments for your text provider. Have you done any sort of regional drill down? Since of course, you know you’re able to get people as billing addresses and general locations when they text in. Have you done any sort of breakdown on a regional level to tell even at a top level if your underground marketing for how people are finding us is working?

Speaker 2: Absolutely. We’ve noticed that there’s been a couple of things. Obviously, the key to success is promoting the number, promoting the short code and making sure people actually know about it. So in the areas where we’ve made actual efforts to do promotions, we produce fliers, we print them, we get that information out directly in the community. We work with community partners to actually grab that information and make sure it gets on things like bus stop ads, postcards and fliers get to food banks and shelters, and that church and faith based groups get that type of information. We see 80% more texts coming from those areas. Now to me, I think that’s also a measure of how involved those community partners are in terms of wanting to get the word out. I think the value of promotions can’t be discounted. We work with Mobile Comments to sort of break down our numbers on a state by state and a sort of Eventually, we create individual short cuts for each state that’s doing the program. There’s one larger one for international but we create individual short cuts for each state. So like food MD would be a good example for Maryland. Then we are able to track even down to that level that somebody even was We’ve seen a lot of people that was actually from out of that state, text that number. My guess is that they’re trying to find information for a family member or a friend that lives in that state and that’s all great information to have. Mobile Comments just made it super simple for us just to kind of dig on where people are texting from. When we overlay that with the sites, the summer meal sites we have in the system we see that there’s a lot of correlation to increases to summer meals in places like Arkansas, where there’s heavy texting and people are using the text to find the summer meals site program. We just can’t do that one to one yet where we say this person texted then later on they showed up at the site. We’re hoping to do that late on through something where we text them back a few days later and say, “Hey, did you actually visit the site? Which one did visit? and hopefully, get a little more information even if it’s not quite quantitative, at least it gives us a little bit of anecdotal qualitative evidence as opposed to the how we’re doing with the texting program.

Speaker 1: Got you! So you’re able to use these short codes and the same number. What is the exact number that people text?

Speaker 2: It’s Food to 877-877. That’s the best one for the national text to find summer meals site. That pools in all the summer meals sites around the country.

Speaker 1: Exactly. It’s a really brilliant move to not only just rely on where someone’s billing address is. When someone texts in you can obviously, get their billing address. Also, segment by their campaign. That sounds like what you’re doing with the short code food and whatever the state may be. That’s ad drilling. What has been the most successful form of marketing to drive these text messages.

Speaker 2: Two things have been most successful. One are the fliers. We do printable fliers, Each school is required before school let’s out for the summer, by the USDA to put a flier or give kids information about summer meals. Just generally, whether that’s an announcement over the intercom or whatever. So we provide fliers in a place like Texas where we provided them with the fliers that had the texting short code and number on it. It went in every kid’s backpack in the state before they left. That’s the most effective form of marketing. Something come home with a student to the parent, the parent’s going to read it. That helped a lot. Texas was one of our areas that the amount texted indicated the demand. The other this is radio advertising. We had some video radio air time donated. We did PSAs with local celebrities via the radio and those seem to drive a lot of Whenever those radio advertisements play those drive a lot of texts into the system so we can see a lot of little spikes. We match those up with when our PSAs would play on the radio.

Speaker 1: Well that’s fantastic because you remember when somebody is listening to the radio, they are not necessarily by their web device where they can literally log on and do something. It’s very, very turn key to say just take out our phone and make a text. That goes for loading a site or loading an app it’s an easy activation point.

Speaker 2: Absolutely. As long as they’re not driving.


Speaker 1: Certainly not texting and driving. Honestly, pulling over to the side of the road and properly texting

Speaker 2: There we go, there we go.

Speaker 1: Would be the desired action that we want to see. Well, I think we’re coming to about the end. How do people find you? What are you looking for, how can people help you?

Speaker 2: I think the biggest thing people can do is promote the short code food and the number 877-877. Really, I mean to me that’s the most important thing. It really [inaudible 22:00] started to roll back up in May. If they haven’t already joined the movement of people that want to end childhood hunger in America, they can always go to nokidhungry.org. They can find out how to get more information from us. Well obviously tell everybody, “hey, this is when you obviously need to share this opportunity with your friends, family and community.” Then we’re actually rolling out a national day of texting in June. The actual day hasn’t been set yet but the first week of June, keep an eye out. We’re asking people on that, at that time to share the fact that you can find a summer meals site through call, click or important to this text.

Speaker 1: Alright, fantastic! Jason, how do people find you on the interwebs?

Speaker 2: They can find me, essentially I am the Twitter handle for @nokidhungry. So they can find me there. They can obviously find me through LinkedIn and on Facebook. We’re at Facebook.com/nokidhungry as well.

Speaker 1: Well great! Thanks for coming on the podcast. We really appreciate your time.

Speaker 2: Thank you.

[Music Plays]

Speaker 1: I really enjoyed hearing that story from Jason about using text messaging for impact. How they thought about their constituency and how they could go to them, where they were. Not let’s build some mobile app that honestly, nobody had access to. They used text messaging, went where their people were.

I want you to take a second and think about where you are right now. Are you on the computer listening to this? Are you listening on your iPod? Are you listening in a car somewhere? Think about what you have most readily available. It’s probably sitting in your pocket right now. The ability to text versus pull up a website of a domain that I might give you, you wouldn’t even be able to put it in. What would be easier right now, texting food to 877-877 or going to nokidhungry.org/something or another, typing that in on your smart phone, loading that over your 3G or 4G network, going to a webpage, typing something into a form and searching it? The ease of use of text messaging can not be underemphasized. Something to think about as you’re trying to increase your impact. Use text messaging.

Well, thanks so much. As usual, you can find the resources from today’s cast on wholewhale.com/podcast.