November 30, 2015 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

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.

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