Food banks turn to online distribution

by Array

Distributing food to its various member food banks is now a SNAP for the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB).

In December the OAFB went live with a web-based distribution system. The Smarter Needs Allocation Program (SNAP) allows the association, which is responsible for acquiring food and sending it to four distribution centres—in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, Sudbury and Toronto—and 120 food banks across the province, to move away from the paper, fax and e-mail-based system it had been relying upon to determine food allocation.

Even though the system has only been running for a few months, OAFB executive director Bill Laidlaw says it has completely changed the way the association operates.

“We at the food banks in Ontario have to be more diligent, more strategic, more assertive and more street-smart in figuring out ways to service close to half a million Ontarians who use our food on a regular basis,” he says. “What this system allows us to do is spend less time in the detailed administrative work and more time looking at how we’re going to acquire more foods.”

The system is the result of a grant from IBM Canada Ltd, which donated $250,000 in services to the OAFB in order to develop and implement the project. IBM staff worked with the OAFB throughout the 12-week process, which was broken into 10 weeks of development and two weeks of production support.

Jennifer Nolan, an advisory IT architect with IBM Canada, was team leader on the project and says the first step was learning how the OAFB operates and what the system needed to be capable of doing.

“When we first talked with them, they knew they needed an online system,” explains Nolan. “They knew what their requirements were but they couldn’t really put it together. We had a lot of working sessions with them so we could really understand the business problems they face, what they were trying to achieve and how the existing system worked so we could design the new system so that it would really meet what they needed.”

Nolan says technology costs for the project were kept to a minimum. “We developed it using open source software called Ruby on Rails, which runs with a MySQL database on Linux. We installed it on a server in the cloud. It’s on an external network, with a Linux hosting provider.”

The system, which is the first of its kind for Canadian food banks, allows the OAFB to send out notifications of what food is available and then take requests from the member food banks for how much of the food they’d like to receive. Food banks are also permitted to offer excess food they receive in peer-to-peer transactions.

Allocation decisions are based on a number of factors, but the food bank’s Hunger Count plays a key role. The Hunger Count is determined through an annual survey of how many people use the services of each local food bank in the course of a month.

“We record the Hunger Count of each food bank for each fiscal year. We also include an allocation percentage by weight. SNAP will see what percentage of food they’ve been allocated based on their Hunger Count,” Nolan explains. “So if they have five percent of the Hunger Count, then they should be receiving five percent of the allocations by weight. It will highlight them in red if they’re under and black if they’re over. And the application will recommend that at the top to promote equality.”

SNAP has been such a success that Laidlaw sees it having a grander future than originally envisioned.

“I think it might expand through the rest of Canada, which is an interesting possibility,” he says, adding that the OAFB has other improvement projects in the works as well. “The next step for us is for us to improve our distribution system so we can be more effective and efficient getting food to our food banks. We also want to make sure all our facilities with frozen product freezers and fridges have capabilities to allow them to get fresh produce.”