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Action Learning

Diversity

Organizational assistance for a COVID-era food pantry

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The Boston International Newcomers Academy (BINcA) is a Boston high school that serves a diverse student body of English-language learners. During the COVID-19 pandemic, BINcA staff realized that students and their families were facing unprecedented levels of food insecurity. To address this challenge, BINcA faculty and family liaisons teamed up to support the school community with a food pantry. Students from MIT Sloan’s Organizations Lab (Orgs-Lab) joined forces with BINcA to help ensure the program’s success.

“For families who have recently immigrated to the United States, seeking food assistance can be a challenge on many levels,” says Orgs-Lab faculty member Bridget Akinc, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan. “This team demonstrated a deep level of empathetic inquiry and market research that allowed for innovative and creative solutions to be discussed with their BINcA hosts.”

Orgs-Lab is an Action Learning course focused on how individuals can transform organizations to make positive changes in the world. Like other Action Learning courses, Orgs-Lab combines classroom teaching with real-world experience, partnering students with hosts to address key organizational challenges.

Students working with BINcA began by assessing what the organization most needed to develop a successful food distribution program. To do this, students employed a structured problem-solving approach called A3, a technique they learned in class.

“Though it took us awhile to frame the problem statement, once we did so, we were able to take concrete steps,” says Lakshmi Sita Savaram, MBA ’22, who worked on the project with Chidi Okolo, MBA ’22, and Jose Ramos, MBA ’21.

Although BINcA initially sought help with its inventory system, she adds, the Orgs-Lab team identified other key issues. “We realized that the problem that was most pertinent was to increase the demand of the food pantry, as measured by the number of students utilizing the pantry’s services.”

Akinc says the MIT students initially identified an operations challenge in the transportation and logistics of getting food to families’ homes—especially as the pandemic limited public transportation options. “But there were other more salient challenges,” including the potential stigma involved in seeking assistance, she explains. “By employing language skills in multiple languages, our MIT students spoke directly with students and arrived at this important insight into students’ reservations to enter the food pantry program.”

Orgs-Lab students interviewed BINcA students and parents and brainstormed ideas with food pantry organizers to develop a suite of recommendations. “Of the multiple options we put forth, the host chose the option of providing grocery carts to families, which was within the budget they planned for the program,” Savaram says.

Yaritza Sanchez, intake coordinator for BINcA, says Orgs-Lab provided valuable insights for the food pantry team. “They were super helpful, asking the right questions and putting us in the right direction for a solution to our problem,” she says.