Food banks use technology to fight hunger

As many of us indulged in Thanksgiving meals last week, NPR’s Planet Money podcast and WAMU’s Metro Connection shared stories on ways food banks are using technology to improve food distribution.

The Planet Money story focuses on how Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, distributes the donated food it gets from farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and government organizations. Until a few years ago, the headquarters staff didn’t know enough about what kinds of food local organizations most needed or could arrange to get – which is why a food bank in Alaska missed out on a shipment of oranges they could have arranged to transport, but ended up with a truckload of pickles.

The solution, explains the Planet Money story, was an online auction site where local food banks can submit sealed bids. The local organizations receive daily allotments of virtual dollars, and the amount they bid on a particular lot of food signals how much they need it. It’s unlikely that a bank will bid on food it can’t use (like potatoes in Idaho, where the food bank already has plenty of potato donations), so waste is reduced.

As the story makes clear, the Feeding America system relies on the efficiency of a market. Like most US households, local food banks don’t have enough virtual dollars to get all the food they could possibly want, so they have to plan and prioritize. But Feeding America’s system is different from a typical market in one crucial way: The food banks that serve the most people get the most virtual dollars. The full 18-minute Planet Money episode is well worth a listen.

One of Feeding America’s members, the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC, has figured out an additional way to use technology to serve food-insecure families efficiently. In a July 2015 story that ran again Thanksgiving weekend, Lauren Ober of WAMU’s Metro Connection explained how the Capital Area Food Bank’s Hunger Heat Map lets the organization find areas of unmet need. It combines census data on poverty and food insecurity with information on where food is already being distributed. Ober gives an example:

If you’re driving on Jefferson Davis Highway in Woodbridge, Virginia, it’s easy to miss the Marumsco Mobile Home Park. First, there’s no signage or street address out front. Second, it’s basically hidden in a gully behind an Auto Zone and a taco joint on the busy road.

Because of its location, the kids who live at Marumsco are basically trapped in the park during the summer. Most are children of Latino immigrants and many live in poverty. They need the services that the food bank provides, but they can’t get to them.

“This is a remote location for them,” said Amanda Brundidge, the mobile meals program coordinator for the Capital Area Food Bank. “They can’t cross the main street. And they have barriers that prevent them from going to the mobile sites.”

After recognizing this unmet need, the Capital Area Food Bank started sending a Kids Food Bus to four new locations, including the Marumsco Mobile Home Park.

In the US, 48 million people – approximately one in seven – face food insecurity. I hope that shameful number will decline, but in the meantime it’s a good thing we have so many creative, committed people tackling the problem.

More like this

Slacktivist talks about politics in Delaware, concluding: the state's governor-elect … ma[de] a shrewd, surprising and encouraging announcement of his own regarding his upcoming inaugural celebration: "Markell: Give time for your neighbors." Gov.-elect Jack Markell proposed an alternative to the…
It’s not surprising that food insecurity has a negative health and academic impact on young children — numerous studies have come to that conclusion. However, a new study has begun to dig a little deeper into the topic, zeroing in on the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, when food…
by Kim Krisberg Hunger in America can be hard to see. It doesn't look like the image of hunger we usually see on our TVs: the wrenching impoverishment and emaciation. Talking about American hunger is hard because, well, there's food all around us. Everywhere you look, there's food — people eating…
tags: Hunger in America, food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, food stamps, poverty Image: Orphaned. One thing that the Thanksgiving Holidays has made clear: America, the land of plenty where holiday overeating is celebrated as a social good, is suffering from a food availability crisis.…

I can't believe there are no comments! Good work. Here's another worthwhile endeavor:

This story brought me first to anger and then to tears. I can hardly believe what this women had to go through to get any funding for such a noble cause. What’s the matter with people, anyway? Are they so heartless and clueless?

By Lighthorse (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink