Using ‘Tech for Good’ to reduce food bank use

I’m in the process of developing a concept that builds financial resilience among people in marginal to moderate* food insecurity, reducing the need to access food aid should a financial shock occur.

Last year Oxfam GB asked me to take the lead for them on CAST’s Fuse accelerator programme. Fuse is ‘a nonprofit technology accelerator...working with established nonprofits to build scalable, user-centred, digital services’.

The aim was to develop a digital service to support people who are food insecure to find the most appropriate and useful services and to use the information collected to help towards building a complete national picture of food poverty, thus informing policy and action at national and local levels.

Nice and simple then!

Through the fast-paced three month accelerator, we tested, co-designed and developed a concept by working with service delivery organisations, working families in food insecurity and food bank users. The feedback and co-design helped shape the concept in a way that means people will want to use it. The ultimate goal was to end up with a minimum viable product (MVP).

Initial desktop research and user interviews helped us make two key decisions:

  • We needed to focus on financial resilience rather than food. After all, food poverty simply means that people don’t have enough money to buy food.
  • The concept we develop should be targeted at families on low incomes in marginal food insecurity (since then the government has spoken of a similar focus on ‘just about managing’ households and this Resolution Foundation report describes the issues faced by these households).

In many cases families on low incomes live with a certain level of precarity with little financial resilience to deal with a financial shock occurring. During the development phase of Fuse we called this stage the ‘cusp’.

Research tells us that there is a strong likelihood that a financial shock will occur, whether this is predictable (school holidays, birthdays or Christmas) or unpredictable (white goods breaking down or a parking ticket). This financial shock often creates the need for families to access short-term ‘solutions’, including high interest emergency debt, and/or fall further into food insecurity, resulting in the need to visit their local food bank. We called this stage the ‘crisis’.

We knew we couldn’t prevent the crisis from happening, although during user interviews it was apparent that a lot of the crises had been caused by simple human error, leading to benefit delays or sanctions, through no fault of their own.

Instead, as a result of the interviews we carried out, we decided to see how we could help families build financial resilience so that a financial shock doesn’t need to lead to a food bank referral. Reasons for this include the associated stigma and stress of visiting a food bank (this often means that people referred to a food bank don’t go).

Following lots of user research and an initial test we have designed a concept with a working title of QuidsIn. The next development stage of QuidsIn will enable us to get further insight which may result in changes to the mechanics of the product. However, as it stands QuidsIn can be described as the first digital payment card scheme for people on low incomes that incorporates an emergency savings fund.  

Users have a prepayment card that is used for everyday shopping. By using the card they save small amounts as they shop and this saving is match-funded by external agencies.

Members can redeem their savings when they experience financial shock. This may be done by visiting a local service agency, facilitating links with other forms of support, or it may be done online. This is just one of the elements of the concept that we will be testing during the second stage of development.

We believe QuidsIn will reduce the need for families to visit food banks. A manager of a food bank told us that if QuidsIn was on offer it would reduce the number of people using their service by at least a third.

Service agencies acting as referrers to food banks told us that they often hand out a food bank voucher knowing that an emergency food parcel isn’t the most appropriate offer for that person. However, they hand them out in the absence of a suitable alternative. We believe QuidsIn can be a truly effective alternative.

We are now beginning the second stage of testing thanks to a grant from Comic Relief, via their Tech for Good funding stream.

I’ll be leading a pilot of QuidsIn, on behalf of Oxfam, between April and July this year, in partnership with Super Being Labs, our product partner, and ongoing support from CAST.

We’ll be working with a number of service agencies across the UK, getting their support to recruit participants who will take part in a number of short test sprints. The insights we gain from these sprints, including participant feedback during and after each sprint, will enable us to design a robust, effective version of QuidsIn, and a road map for further development that will eventually lead to a full nationwide launch.

For information on all the projects awarded support through the Comic Relief Tech for Good programme click here.

For further information about the agile design process we are using click here.

*PROOF Canada categorises food insecurity as follows:

  1. Households experiencing marginal food insecurity reported one food-insecure condition.
  2. Households experiencing moderate food insecurity reported compromise in quality and/or quantity food consumed among adults and/or children.
  3. Households experiencing severe food insecurity reported reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns among adults and/or children.