ASU supply-chain team overcomes logistical challenges to feed families

By

Mary Beth Faller

Lots of people are eager to help feed hungry people, but obstacles like money, time and distance can overcome goodwill and generosity. Even when food is almost within reach, fear and distrust can hinder the best intentions.

Many of these hurdles can be overcome with detailed coordination, or logistics, which is the specialty of the supply-chain management experts in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

Thanks to a grant from the All In Challenge, supply-chain faculty members and several students at ASU have been spending the last year working on ways to get food to hungry people.

The $162,000 grant has paid for about a dozen students to work on 11 projects to ease food insecurity, some completed and some ongoing.

One of the biggest projects is Forks for Families, in which the ASU team focused on ways to get bags of food into the hands of families who can’t make it to a food bank. Since December, the pilot project has fed nearly 500 people.

The work started nearly a year ago. John Fowler, the Motorola Professor of International Business, said the grant, part of a nationwide competition, was intended to help students who had seen internships canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ASU projects covered a wide range of food insecurity issues. In work completed last year, students did an assessment of “milk dumping,” mapped all the food banks in Arizona, studied an organization that does “gleaning,” analyzed costs of a home-delivery program and looked into the Operation BBQ Relief nonprofit.

Several projects are ongoing. In the Feeding America capacity analysis, students are helping food banks understand their storage capacity for shelf and freezer items.

“We are building a model to help them evaluate whether they need more storage or have enough for any spikes in demand,” said Brett Duarte, clinical assistant professor.

“We’ll look at historical data and demand, and go to the physical locations to understand what storage they have right now.”

Another ongoing project is helping a food pantry in the Boston area, according to Srimathy Mohan, an associate professor.

Associate Professor Srimathy Mohan (left) helps Lismeira Montero, and her children Juan David Romero, 1, and Maria Romero, 6, with two bags of nonperishable food at a Forks for Families food distribution site at Roosevelt Elementary School in Mesa on Feb. 9. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“The pantry does about 130 deliveries per week and is completely volunteer run,” she said. “When a volunteer can’t show up or there’s a client issue, the set routes don’t work. They need logistics or an app that can quickly adapt to changes.”

The goal is to automate the task so it can be used by other pantries.

Also ongoing is a project to help St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix. Students designed an app to track inventory, such as when supplies are nearing their expiration date. Then, the soup kitchen chefs can plan out their meals with a sense of what’s in storage and where it’s located so nothing is wasted.

“We’re anticipating a 15% reduction in food waste, which translates to over $200,000 in savings annually,” Duarte said. That app is being tested now.

The Native American Community Study will track food insecurity in tribal communities, but has been delayed due to pandemic limitations.

Forks for Families focuses on the “last mile” concept in supply chain – getting a product to its final destination, according to Katy Keane, a lecturer in the school who teaches logistics.

As Keane started working with the students and the United Food Bank, a PhD student who works in ASU’s Luminosity Lab, Sydney Wallace, was thinking about the families who attend Roosevelt School in Mesa, many of whom were struggling during the pandemic. Wallace’s mother teaches there, and with that connection, the team decided to test its project at Roosevelt.

The grant pays for ASU students to work on the project, but not for food. Under the CARES Act, the food bank received bags of staples from the U.S. government’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. But many families can’t come to the food bank to pick up the bags.

“It’s not ideal because there’s no fresh produce or meat, but it works for our program,” Keane said.

Besides transportation issues, another problem is that food banks do not stay open into the early evening, after work ends. In fact, many smaller pantries are open only for a few hours in the morning or afternoon, the team found.

So they decided to distribute the food bags at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays at the school, which is within walking distance for many of the families.  

Distributing government food requires a lot of paperwork, and a student in ASU’s Luminosity Lab, Jeremy Liu, developed an app to streamline the process. The Forks for Families app can send out mass text reminders, quickly sign in families when they pick up their food and create all required documents for the emergency food assistance program.

When distribution began in December, the team quickly discovered other logistical problems. Originally, there were three distribution points, but two of them did not pan out, so they stuck with the school site.

Also, transportation was unsustainable.

“We were all driving to the food bank and putting the bags into our own cars,” Keane said.

That’s not a method that could be replicated in other places. So Keane contacted the Amazon Foundation and asked if they could help. Thanks to that partnership, an Amazon van driver now picks up the bags at the food bank and drops them off at the school every Tuesday.

That added a new obstacle. The food bank closes at 2:30, so the Amazon van had to pick up the bags before then. But where to keep the bags until the 6 p.m. distribution at the school?

The team realized that they could hand out more bags overall by adding an after-school distribution time, so people picking up their kids can drive right up and get food.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the team distributed bags to 20 families in the pick-up line. Each bag contained shelf-stable items such as pasta, sauce, canned fruit, rice, lentils and pouches of chicken meat.

Food bags left over from the Tuesday afternoon distribution are given out on Wednesday evenings, and any left over after that are given to the Pitchfork Pantry, a student-run food-distribution service that’s open to any ASU student.

The Forks for Families team found that communication is a lingering problem. Families must register for the food bags, and many times, they sign up but don’t come.

Ayushman Mathur, a full-time MBA student at ASU, has been serving as the project manager, making sure everything stays on track.

“I thought it would be easy to reach out to families, but it’s still something we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

“One surprising thing I learned was that while we have unlimited data plans on our phones, not everyone does. So when we sent SMS messages to these families, we didn’t get replies.

“And when we asked them why they didn’t reply, they said because it would have cost money to reply. And we didn’t expect that.”

Fear is an obstacle as well. Some families are reluctant to provide names and other personal information in exchange for the food bags, even though everything is kept confidential.

“That’s why the school counselors and principal are critical partners in this, because they’re the ones reaching out to the families,” Keane said.

By May, the goal is to produce a written standard operating procedure that anyone could implement in their community.

“That’s why Amazon is such a great strategic partner — as we’re trying to prove this pilot to make it scalable, Amazon is everywhere,” she said.

“We want to create a playbook of process steps – how to start, how to set up, who to contact.”

Shakki Bhat, a senior majoring in supply chain management and business global politics, was one of the project leads. Before this, he didn’t realize that the volunteer-dependent food pantries had limited hours.

“If you’re a working family with children it can be tough to find the resources and it’s even tougher now,” he said.

“Our first food distribution was in December, so we were able to give food to families right in time for the holiday season, which was really impactful and a great experience.”

Sydnie Ho, a junior majoring in supply chain management and business data analytics, has been tracking all of the logistical details on an Excel spreadsheet.

“I note every single step and process that needs to be done – who we contacted and what info we need – and I’m constantly updating that,” she said.

“There’s been lots of issues that have come up, like legal issues and other things we have to think about. But that makes it more rewarding once we figure it out and get the food into the hands of families.”

Top image: ASU supply-chain Lecturer Katy Keane (left) and Associate Professor Srimathy Mohan set up a pop-up food distribution site at Roosevelt Elementary School in Mesa on Feb. 9. Keane arranged to have the Amazon Foundation pay for an Amazon van to deliver bags of food from a food pantry to the school every week. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now