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Hunger can be an organizational challenge

They’re called gleaners, and they’re an important force for good. These volunteers who harvest farmers’ expiring produce and deliver it to food banks have a worthy goal, but the outcome is not always what they envision—the hungry having fresh food to eat. In an article in the food trade publication The Griffin Report, MIT Sloan Visiting Assistant Professor Deishin Lee says that operational challenges often are thwarting the altruism of gleaners and the generous farmers who are donating the produce.

Lee and her interdisciplinary team of colleagues from Cornell and Boston College have worked closely with three food banks across the country to study how the produce harvested by gleaners is being processed. They discovered that gleaners indeed have an important role to play in feeding those in need. “It’s been estimated that about 6 percent of planted acres go unharvested in the United States,” she says. “These are edible crops fit for human consumption that will be left in the fields to be plowed under unless someone goes back to harvest or glean them.”

Simultaneously, she notes, it’s been estimated that about 14 percent of U.S. households face food insecurity. Food insecurity? Lee defines it as those who are not getting enough healthy, nutrient-rich food—either for lack of access or lack of money. Gleaning, therefore, addresses hunger, food waste, and nutritional deficiencies.

Balancing gleaners

Unfortunately, the success of gleaning relies on a number of complex and unpredictable factors. The first problem is the vagaries of the weather, meaning that the availability of produce can never be precisely scheduled. Food banks rely on volunteer pickers who often are not available to pick or process the produce at the moment it becomes available. In the end, too much of the food ends up rotting before it gets to the tables of hungry children and adults.

Lee and her team found two intertwined solutions—coordinate volunteers well and limit the number of donations to farms that are practical for volunteers to reach.  “Achieving this balance is not trivial because we can’t control the timing or the quantity of crop donations or volunteer labor,” she says. “However, by applying modeling and optimization techniques from industrial engineering and operations research to gleaning, we can account for the randomness in the crop donation arrivals and when volunteers will show up—and select the optimal schedule and staffing level that maximize the amount of food gleaned. We’ve also developed an algorithm for finding the optimal dynamic staffing policy.”

Lee and her team have established proof of concept. “We show that dynamic adjustments to staffing levels based on system congestion can recover approximately 14 percent of the produce volume lost using a static policy. The difference between scheduling too few or too many gleaning trips and just the right number of trips can make the difference of 10-15 percent or greater in total volume gleaned.”

Read more about Deishin Lee’s work.

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