Researchers Develop Model To Help Food Banks Distribute Food

Mar 1, 2018

File photo of cans of food. Researchers from N.C. State University have developed two computer models to help food banks feed as many people as possible while reducing waste.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

More than 12 percent of Americans experience food insecurity and many depend on food banks to make it through a year.

Food banks also deal with uncertainty because they can't always predict how much donated food will come in or whether the counties that need it most will be able to distribute it all. Leftovers often go to waste.

Now, researchers from N.C. State University have developed two computer models to help food banks run more efficiently. One offers a way to better calculate an area's capacity to distribute food equitably. The other relaxes equity restrictions and helps organizations send food where it's most needed and eliminate waste.

“It is possible to distribute as much as you can, reduce waste, and be fair,” said Systems Engineer Julie Ivy.

Ivy and her colleagues gathered data from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. They're working with North Carolina A&T University and a company called Performigence to create software to let other food banks expand and use these models.

"Our models try to look at these tradeoffs that the food bank is having to make really every day, and trying to help create a structure that helps inform some of their decision making, but also explain some of the decision making,” Ivy said.

Ivy said food banks operate in an uncertain environment. Some county food distribution organizations are robust, with reliable facilities and volunteer power. But Ivy said that local capacity doesn't always line up with the local need.

“One of the things we hope our work can kind of inform may be where you might target additional resources or recruit additional agencies to expand capacity,” Ivy said.

The models will be tested next in Los Angeles.