Hi-Tech Food Banks & the Safety of Food Supply Chains

“Food security is closely connected with economic growth and social progress as well as with political stability and peace.” – G8 Summit (July, 2009)

According to the September 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Report on “Household Food Security in the United States in 2010,” nearly 49 million Americans are “food insecure” – meaning that they struggle with the problems caused by not having a sufficient amount of food on a daily basis. Hunger relief organizations across the United States provided 3.3 billion pounds of food last year to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the 2011 Annual Report of Feeding America, the largest U.S. food banking network.

Organizers of food banks continually struggle to secure and protect the very large quantities of food required to fulfill the demand. Some food is donated or purchased at local food agencies, but most of the food distributed comes through a sophisticated network of providers – also known as a supply chain – of growers, food processors, government agencies, and other organizations. An ongoing challenge for a supply chain is keeping the food safe as it crosses between various groups. This task is especially difficult because, according to the Feeding America report, an estimated 78 percent of charitable food is considered “nutritious” – a term that often means short expiration dates and specific handling requirements.

Food contamination could pose an even higher risk for populations that are already nutritionally weakened – and often either uninsured or underinsured. Because of hospitalization and other medical costs associated with food contamination, any health-related issues can be extremely detrimental to any local community, large or small, throughout the entire country. Fortunately, food banks across the nation have been pioneering a number of new hi-tech approaches to address both current and future food-safety problems.


Feeding America itself provides an excellent example of how the “best practices” used in the for-profit world can be modified and applied directly to the nonprofit world of hunger relief and food protection. In 2001, Feeding America started to automate its operations in the same way the business world does. By employing highly efficient SCM (supply-chain management) software, suppliers, food banks, and relief agencies are now digitally connected with one another.

More than a decade ago, this type of strategic information technology (IT) investment by a nonprofit was almost unheard of – at least in part because nonprofits usually do not have budgets large enough for multi-year IT investments.

By adopting the technology of the for-profit world, food banking networks can better integrate and share data with the IT systems of major food processors. However, the increased volume of food now being delivered across the country also means there is an increased risk of more individual citizens becoming ill, or worse, if a shipment of food is found to be contaminated (and/or has been recalled by the food processor for other health reasons). To minimize such risks, thorough planning – combined with the creation of an infrastructure that supports rapid communication throughout the supply chain – can help identify and locate contaminated “batches” of food and thereby minimize the overall impact.


Additional technological advances are already expected as bar-coding and RFID (radio-frequency identification) technologies are tested and adopted by hunger-relief supply chains. These new technologies will provide even greater accuracy in identifying the location of a specific food item at the unit level. In addition to enhancing the ease of receiving and distributing items, these solutions will further reduce the cost of tracking shipments that are transferred from one region to another by: (a) eliminating or at least reducing various shelf-life issues; and (b) simplifying the sometimes complicated communications and logistics problems associated with food recalls.

The collective goal of the numerous agencies and organizations involved is to create a highly efficient hunger-relief supply chain that can deliver foods that are as safe as possible. In the process, these systems can also help protect vulnerable populations from the additional illnesses sometimes caused by recalled or contaminated food products. Although Feeding America has pioneered much of the work carried out in this area, other hunger and disaster relief nonprofits may not have either the staffs or the budgetary resources needed to adopt the same technologies. For that reason alone, public-private partnerships provide an attractive option for financially funding the startup investment costs required to adopt those technologies and thereby improve food safety.

The importance of food safety within the hunger-relief supply chain is a concern that touches every community – from cities to suburbs to rural America – and it is one that food banks and technology providers continue to address and improve upon every day. For that reason, among others, it is important for communities across the nation to work more closely together, both now and for the foreseeable future, to help protect the safety of the entire food supply chain.

For additional information on:
USDA’s “Household Food Security in the United States in 2010” Report, visit 

Feeding America’s 2011 Annual Report

Case study on Feeding America, visit http://www.aidmatrix.org/relief-programs/Feeding%20America%20Case%20Study.pdf

Scott McCallum

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum has more than 30 years of executive experience leading organizations in the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. He was elected lieutenant governor four times before becoming one of the youngest state senators in Wisconsin history. He also has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Northwestern University, Sun Yat-Sen University, and Hunan University in China, and is presently an adjunct professor in the School of Health and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also serves as president and CEO of The Aidmatrix Foundation, a nonprofit organization that annually has mobilized and distributed more than $1.5 billion in aid worldwide. With operations on six continents and more than 52,000 user organizations, Aidmatrix has been serving the humanitarian sector since 2000 by providing the humanitarian-relief supply chain technology and the internet information systems needed to connect private sector businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations with one another to carry out their individual and collective missions more efficiently.



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