The OR of Food Banks

The season of giving is upon us! In light of Thanksgiving, I am writing about feeding the needy. This is also a follow up to my entry on Community-Based OR. One of the OR success stories highlighted in the paper has to do with America’s Second Harvest (ASH), and its network of pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens, and food banks. Michael Johnson and Karen Smilowitz write:

The goal of ASH and the agencies in their network is to match surplus food with those in need. This matching is a large-scale distribution and inventory management problem that occurs each day at thousands of nonprofit agencies across the country. Much research has been conducted on related supply-chain problems in commercial settings where the goal of such systems is either to maximize profit or minimize cost. Little work, however, has been conducted in nonprofit applications. In such settings, the objectives are often more difficult to quantify because issues such as equity and sustainability must be considered, yet efficient operations are still crucial.

Drivers collect food donations and distribute the donations to agencies. Some of the things OR can do to help is to

  • Determine good routes for the drivers given uncertainties in the amount of donations.
  • Determine the amount of food that should be allocated to each agency, based on food demand, the agency’s budget, and the agency’s available storage.

There are related OR models for such problems, but they can’t be applied to community problems since

[i]n the private sector, related sequential inventory allocation
decisions are often made to either maximize revenue or minimize costs. Although
cost-efficient operations remain desirable in the nonprofit sector, focusing purely on cost
can lead to inequitable solutions. The GCFD seeks to provide all agencies with adequate
resources in an equitable manner.

This is from the Tutorial in OR from the INFORMS Annual Meeting. See R.Lien, S.Iravani, and K.Smilowitz.Sequential allocation problems for nonprofit agencies. Working paper, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 2007.

I recently read an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Mark Winne entitled When the Handouts Keep Coming, the Food Line Never Ends that was negative about food banks. After decades of food bank experience, Winne notes that despite the fact that more and more people give to food banks, there is always a shortage:

Like transportation planners who add more lanes to already clogged highways, we add more space to our food banks in the futile hope of relieving the congestion.

Winne argues that we should reduce reliance on food banks and stamp out poverty instead. I am sure that food banks are problematic, but I disagree with his assessment that we shouldn’t rely on food banks. Maybe food banks just need a healthy dose of OR to reach the neediest people and to use scarce resources wisely and equitably.

Further Reading:
Hunger in America, an ASH study of hunger. Read the key findings here.


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