A Solution to Hunger and Food Wastage Using a Technology-Facilitated Social Supply Chain
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Ria Mirchandani, John Burroughs School, St. Louis, Missouri, USA
In 1624, the English poet John Donne poignantly wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee (Donne, 1624).” Humans are intricately connected. Our actions impact each other in a chain reaction that can span geography and time, as evident from pandemics and global warming as well as the disparate distribution of food, education, wealth, and other resources. Donne’s words serve to remind us that we cannot be immune to the suffering of others caused by this disparity of resources.
Nearly two billion people, about one-fourth of the world’s population, suffer from hunger. Of these, about 700 million are severely undernourished (FAO et al., 2021). Malnutrition is associated with serious health consequences including heart disease, diabetes, vision loss, stunted growth, and death. Sadly, about one-fifth of the world’s children under the age of five have stunted growth because of malnutrition (Roser and Ritchie, 2019). They are not getting enough proteins, calories, and micronutrients in their diet and thus are deficient in vitamin A, iron, zinc, and iodine.
A related nutritional threat is the world’s growing reliance on less expensive processed foods, which alter foods from their original harvested or raised state to better preserve them. Processed foods contain high amounts of sugars and sodium, making people hungrier, obese, and even less resistant to the spread of viruses (Naja and Hamadeh, 2020). Unfortunately, impoverished families can only afford processed foods rather than fresh vegetables and fruits, and food banks typically only stock processed foods because of their longer shelf lives.
While the world’s farms produce enough food to feed everyone, a significant amount is wasted. Among the distressing stories related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are ones about farmers destroying or disposing of their fresh produce, milk, eggs, and livestock that they could not sell to shuttered restaurants and school cafeterias (Severson, 2020; Yaffe-Bellany and Corkery, 2020). Generally, large chain grocery stores do not purchase food from farms that they do not have long-term contracts with. While small farms donate some of their unsold produce to food banks, the latter’s storage capacity and freezer space is often limited because they typically stock non-perishable and processed foods. Small farms are also unable to incur the additional costs of transporting their unsold produce to food banks.
Restaurants, too, have been unable to function to their full capacity due to the lower footfall of customers during COVID-19. They have laid off employees and struggled to survive when instead their culinary talents and staff could be utilized in supporting soup kitchens, schools, and churches in their neighborhoods. Many individuals who have witnessed the problems of hunger and food wastage unfold would like to help by volunteering their time, energy, or money but do not know how.
Some solutions to these problems include:
Creating government programs like the Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program to distribute food to needy families. Such a program was launched in May 2020 as part of the U.S. government’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (USDA, 2021). It was intended to help farmers supply their unsold produce and dairy to the neediest Americans. The U.S. government invested nearly $5 billion in the program but it was difficult for small and minority-owned farms to complete the paperwork to participate as contractors (Wozniacka, 2020). This resulted in many communities and states not benefiting from the program. Thus, the Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program was suspended in April 2021.
Expanding Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs to support school lunches, soup kitchens, and food banks. While this is feasible, companies usually set a maximum limit on their CSR spending and expanding food support programs may divert funds away from other programs aligned with the company’s vision and interests. This solution would also require concerted public lobbying to deviate companies from their current CSR programs.
Developing a technology-facilitated social supply chain to enable farmers to donate their unsold produce to restaurants who will cook them for their neighborhood soup kitchens, schools, or churches with the support of monetary donations made on the website. This solution has the greatest potential for success and can be easily replicated in countries around the world. It is described in more detail below.
Utilizing the concept of the sharing economy popularized by companies like Uber and AirBnB, it is feasible to create a social supply chain that will connect farmers, restaurants, volunteers, and financial donors with food beneficiaries. Users from the first four groups will create accounts on a central website. Algorithms will match them with the other groups in a supply chain that produces fresh meals for the needy while compensating farmers and restaurants with monetary donations received on the website. Farmers will list the produce they wish to donate along with the pickup date and time. Restaurants will choose the produce they can use from the listings. An algorithm will assign a volunteer to the farm from where they will pick up the produce and deliver to the matched restaurant within the produce’s perishable lifespan. Participating restaurants will cook the food and act as take-out soup kitchens for their neighborhoods, where food beneficiaries can come to pick up healthy cooked meals while maintaining social distancing. They can also deliver the cooked food in individual take-out boxes to their neighborhood soup kitchens, schools or churches. Financial donors can make one-time or recurring monetary donations in support of the cause. Depending on the amount of monetary donations made on the website, an algorithm will calculate the compensation that farmers and restaurants will receive based on how much produce they donate or how many meals they serve. Figures 1 and 2 describe the conceptual technology-facilitated social supply chain.
Figure 1. The conceptual technology-facilitated social supply chain
Figure 2. The login process
Figure 3. The food donation and volunteer match process
Figure 4. The distribution of monetary donations process
Hunger and food wastage existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and have been exacerbated by it. If we do nothing to alleviate these problems and human suffering, it will represent one of the greatest failures of our generation. The world’s farms have enough fresh produce that can feed the hungry but this food often goes to waste because food banks have limited capacity to store fresh food, farmers have limited ability to donate food directly to the needy, and impoverished families are unaccustomed to cooking fresh produce whereas restaurants often have slack capacity to do so. In this paper, I propose a technology-facilitated social supply chain as a solution for connecting farmers, restaurants, volunteers, and financial donors with food beneficiaries. This solution can provide nutritious cooked food to those who need it and income to farmers and restaurants. Furthermore, anyone who wishes to help can do so as a financial donor or volunteer.
Donne, J. (1624). Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Meditation XVII.
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2021). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO.
Naja, F., and Hamadeh, R. (2020). Nutrition Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Multi-level Framework for Action. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 74, 1117-1121. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41430-020-0634-3.
Roser, M., & Ritchie, H. (2019). Hunger and Undernourishment. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. https://ourworldindata.org/hunger-and-undernourishment
Severson, K. (2020, April 9). The Farm-to-Table Connection Comes Undone. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/dining/farm-to-table-coronavirus.html.
USDA (2021). Farmers to Families Food Box Program. https://www.ams.usda.gov/selling-food-to-usda/farmers-to-families-food-box
Wozniacka, G. (2020). Black Farmers Say they were dropped from the USDA’s Food Box Program. https://www.eater.com/21850793/usda-food-box-program-black-garmers-small-farm-contracts.
Yaffe-Bellany, D. and Corkery, M. (2020, April 11) “Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic”, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html
Article Thumbnail: "A young baby girl is assessed for signs of malnutrition by International Rescue Committee staff at a health clinic in Kapua, Turkana County, northwest Kenya, 29 January 2017." by DFID - UK Department for International Development is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
All other images were created by the author.