“Food banking doesn’t have a high-tech rep and maybe that does us a disservice,” said Triada Stampas, vice president for Research & Public Affairs at the Food Bank For New York City.
The Food Bank for New York City’s goal is to provide food for 10 million meals this holiday season, including thousands of turkey dinners. Hunger isn’t seasonal, but with a huge seasonal upswing in donations and holiday meals to provide, America’s food banks and food pantries have a herculean task on their hands. Stampas’ organization and several others around the US are attempting to leverage technology to make the massive logistical undertaking of distributing food assistance more efficient for food pantries, despite some of the smallest budgets even within the nonprofit world.
The difference between a food bank and food pantry is their differing points in the supply chain of food assistance. Food banks purchase food wholesale as well as receiving donations. They often centralize food collection for large urban populations or rural areas and then distribute it to charitable organizations with constituencies that become the end-recipients.
There are some 200 food banks in the United States and each one acts as a hub for neighborhood-based food distribution organizations, generally called food pantries. These can be as large as a fully staffed non-profit or as small as a few volunteers in someone’s basement.
There are 60,000 charitable organizations in the US distributing food this winter and according to Stampas, most food pantries operate with a yearly budget of less than $25,000.
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Food businesses are notoriously loathsome of technology upgrades and changes to their ways of operating, to the dismay of many restaurant tech startups, but when all of the staff are volunteers and the only revenue is donated, as with most food pantries, technology upgrades become even more difficult.
According to Mark Phagan, director of information systems at the San Francisco and Marin Country Food Bank, most food banks today are working off of a version of Microsoft software adapted into a food bank-targeted product by the national nonprofit Feeding America.
The software allows food banks to track inventory and orders as well as schedule deliveries, but Phagan has customized it to fit the needs of his specific operation, something that many smaller food banks are likely not able to do.
Food banks also have to navigate a complicated network of grants and government programs that offer different types and quantities of food to different recipients, which the software helps manage.
Despite the creation of dedicated software, experts say the majority of food assistance organizations still have no access to relevant technology for several reasons.
Existing software requires a level of computer literacy that many pantry volunteers do not have, plus it requires computers and internet, which many pantries also can’t afford. Though the available software is heavily discounted, a year’s license may cost a few thousand dollars — an appropriate expense for a food bank with staff and a fundraising operation but less so for a neighborhood pantry with no paid staff.
Plus, the existing software has no way of gathering information about end-users, in this case the receivers of food aid.
There’s An App For That
When a consortium of hunger-fighting government and non-governmental organizations sought to make a product that could help pantry operations operate more efficiently and collect more data to make operations more efficient, they looked to retail for a model.
“In the retail world, they face a similar set of issues around the challenge of getting new technology rolled out in brick and mortar locations and so they’ve pushed the data burden onto their customers” said Bob Shaver, former director of strategic planning for food New York City hunger-focused nonprofit City Harvest who was involved with the consortium, which also includes United Way, the NYC Mayor’s food policy office, and the New York State Department of Health hunger program, and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.
What this group of stakeholders eventually produced was the Plentiful App. The consortium started the app project looking to gather more data about how much food pantries were distributing and to what kinds of households, but the project broadened when they realized they could easily end a problematic part of emergency food aid: lines.
The Plentiful App allows pantries to communicate directly with their clients, pushing out news via SMS in four languages and most importantly, booking food pickup appointments that take the guessing and waiting out of food assistance pickups. Furthermore, it gives pantries and food banks a window into client behavior to allow the pantry to better serve its clients with less waste.
Shaver gave the example of the Xavier Mission in the high-priced West Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The mission used to get frequent complaints from neighborhood residents about the lines for their food pantry on service days. Concerns about shortages often cause food pantry clients to arrive hours before a pantry opens, said Shaver. Since using the Plentiful App, the pantry is able to retain the same level of service with no line at all.
Shaver added that The Jewish Community Center of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan allows monthly visits by clients to its food pantry. The pantry would often run out of food at the beginning and end of the month when bills tend to be due and have an excess of food mid-month. The app allows them pantry to spread out client appointments throughout the month, minimizing waste.
“What got us looking into an app initially was the data. In any other industry, the quality of the data that we’re working with would be considered low. We were trying to solve for the data thing but we realized that if we really wanted to solve for the data thing in a way that most pantries would accommodate, we needed to also solve the dignity thing. So now the success of the data relies on the success of the dignity,” said Shaver.
Reception to the app has been positive, but the rollout has been a major challenge.
“Most of the pantries are purely on pen and paper sign in. Most don’t have internet or computers. It has been a high touch situation,” said Brian Moran, who is tasked with onboarding new pantries.
After a successful New York City rollout, the Plentiful app is ready to start expanding outside of New York, but how that will happen still remains to be seen since the consortium wants to land on a model that does not cost the pantries, nor take away from their donor base, while also generating revenue.
What kinds of technology do food pantries still need? In many ways they are similar to food distributors, many of which still operate without consistent GPS tracking on trucks, efficient communication with drivers or any kind of logistics automation.
Phagan says that his organization is on the hunt for a better way to manage its throngs of volunteers — ironically busloads of Marin County Food Bank volunteers come from tech companies.
Stampas said that though many of the tools her organization uses could be better, what they really need to do is talk to each other. Compliance, inventory management, and customer relations are all in different systems.
But complicating all of these needs is the undeniable fact that food bank donors want their donations to go toward feeding people. Phagan remarked that a major tech executive is financing a much-needed software upgrade for the Marin food bank, but these kinds of targetted donations are rare.