COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for Feeding America, a non-profit organization with a network of 200 local food banks that reach every region in the US. The challenges facing Feeding America today are exposing the soft underbelly of the US food system and exemplifying the agility of our current food system lacking in meeting future challenges.
Immediately, Feeding America needs our help now.
To give you an idea of the size of its operations, the Feeding America network helps provide 4 billion meals a year and has four times more sites for food distribution than the number of McDonald’s restaurants in the US. This is very dependent on food donations from farmers, shippers, retailers, and producers of consumer packaged goods.
COVID-19, of course, minimizes the amount of food eaten by Americans in restaurants, schools and work cafeterias, and other institutions such as the center of senior life. At the same time, the food sector (the main donor for Feeding America) has seen sales increase 80-100% year on year due to viruses.
With that context, how does COVID-19 create the perfect storm to feed America? The American feed is built to withstand the crisis and has answered disaster calls, such as Hurricane Katrina, in the past. But COVID is different. There has never been a crisis so far that has hit entire networks in every state, almost simultaneously. Specifically, the perfect storm COVID has three elements:
DECREASED DONATIONS: Mostly due to increased sales of food ingredients in recent weeks, donations to Feeding America have fallen 40-60% because excess inventory of food and beverages consumed by consumers has been packaged.
INCREASED REQUESTS: With school closures, senior centers closed or closed, and a surge in unemployment, food demand has risen sharply. In the last few weeks at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, half of the customers were children and 40% were first-time visitors to the food bank. In El Paso, Texas, there is a two-mile long line of people lining up to receive food. Last week, orders for the Feeding America network for non-spoiled food rose 1,200% from the previous week. On average, food banks see a 40% increase in demand.
RESOURCES THAT ARE ADDED NEEDED TO OPERATE: Like other business companies, the Feeding America network must adapt to the new reality of social distance and orders to stay at home, which leads to a reduction in available labor. Feeding America has seen a 60% reduction in voluntary labor since the virus crisis hit when a more intensive “social distance” safety protocol was implemented. Throughout the US, National Guards stepped in to help fill the gaps, but the staff was still limited. And like many other institutions, Feeding American has to compete with the additional cost of face masks from gloves, and the challenge of finding sources of life-protecting goods.
Feeding America does not mean silence. It innovates to meet needs and uses various methods to make the distribution model without contact or low contact become more efficient. To protect the people they serve, as well as volunteers and staff, the pre-packaged lunch box food bank and advance pickup scheduling, suggest that only one household member visits the pantry or distribution site to reduce the number of people gathered in one place. The food bank also hosts the drive-thru distribution, where people remain in their vehicles while food bank staff members or volunteers load food into the trunk. In some places, he works with food delivery companies to deliver food to seniors who live at home, and integrates an online reservation system for members of the Feeding America network to schedule a window for the appointment of the food pantry pickup.
But some of the challenges of Feeding America are symptoms of rigidity in our existing food system. We have difficulty reallocating resources to meet our rapidly changing needs. For example:
- How can we ask food workers who don’t work to help feed America?
- How can we reuse the excess supply of milk, eggs and other agricultural products to the food bank?
- How can we repackage larger products for institutional food services to be accessed in consumer-sized packages?
- How can we get more fresh produce and increase cold chain storage to support the food bank system?
- How can we improve innovation in supply chain logistics and better customer delivery to better serve food banks?
In essence, from a technology perspective, how can we better utilize dynamic data and real-time communication to inject more agility into our food system to get the right food to the right place at the right time? We are talking about the challenge of feeding 10 billion people on this planet in 2050 but what about now? Right now NPR reported, in the US we have a lot of food, but we have a dairy company that dumps excess milk and produces farmers who process vegetables to the ground because they don’t know where to sell their products.
Don’t assume that the impact of this virus is a one-time event, but with climate change, supply and demand constantly changing, and other potential challenges, this crisis is an indicator of what might happen. The US military uses a term called “VUCA” in which people assume the operating environment will be volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The author Nassem Talib talks about the fragility or fragility that can occur when large systems become satisfied, and defines the concept of “antifragility” as the practice of designing systems or solutions “so that they benefit from shoks; they grow and develop when exposed to volatility, randomness, distraction, and stress and the adventures of love, risk, and uncertainty. ”
The Feeding America crisis describes several areas in our food system that may be fragile – such as labor availability, logistics, processing, and packaging. At Better Food Ventures we refer to the supply chain space between farmgate and food service or retail endpoints as “messy food”. We need more investment in this field of food systems to improve real-time connections and synchronization between food supply chain actors to achieve “antifragility” or agility.
In the near term, Feeding America expects its operating needs to increase by $ 1.4 billion in the next six months and has prepared a special COVID-19 fund to send 100% donations directly to members of its food bank. Please consider supporting new funding for Feeding America today here.
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