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A systematic literature review of food banks’ supply chain operations with a focus on optimization models

Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management

ISSN : 2042-6747

Article publication date: 26 January 2023

Issue publication date: 9 February 2023

Food banks play an increasingly important role in society by mitigating hunger and helping needy people; however, research aimed at improving food bank operations is limited.

Design/methodology/approach

This systematic review used Web of Science and Scopus as search engines, which are extensive databases in Operations Research and Management Science. Ninety-five articles regarding food bank operations were deeply analyzed to contribute to this literature review.

Through a systematic literature review, this paper identifies the challenges faced by food banks from an operations management perspective and positions the scientific contributions proposed to address these challenges.

Originality/value

This study makes three main contributions to the current literature. First, this study provides new researchers with an overview of the key features of food bank operations. Second, this study identifies and classifies the proposed optimization models to support food bank managers with decision-making. Finally, this study discusses the challenges of food bank operations and proposes promising future research avenues.

  • Food pantries
  • Food distribution
  • Food insecurity
  • Supply chain
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Optimization

Rivera, A.F. , Smith, N.R. and Ruiz, A. (2023), "A systematic literature review of food banks’ supply chain operations with a focus on optimization models", Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management , Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 10-25. https://doi.org/10.1108/JHLSCM-09-2021-0087

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Adrian Fernando Rivera, Neale R. Smith and Angel Ruiz.

Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial & non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode

1. Introduction

Families worldwide struggle to collect enough food with basic nutrition for themselves and their children daily. Around 20% of the world’s population survives with less than US$1.25 a day ( Desai et al. , 2016 ), and more than 10% of the world’s population does not have access to sufficient food. This leads to numerous problems worldwide; disease, poverty, hunger and malnutrition affect many lives ( Reihaneh and Ghoniem, 2018 ).

Poverty and food insecurity have constantly increased worldwide. Food insecurity is a grave issue, particularly in developing nations, defined as “a socioeconomic inability to obtain appropriate quality food in sufficient amounts” ( Trzaskowska et al. , 2020 ). Food insecurity arises when people have restricted access to proper food, hindering a vigorous life ( Davis et al. , 2016 ).

Several nonprofit organizations have been established to reduce food insecurity, playing a progressive part in conveying essential services to defenseless and underserved individuals in society ( Balcik et al. , 2014 ). Food banks are one type of nonprofit organization contributing the most to reducing food insecurity. Food banks are “humanitarian aid organizations that collect, organize and deliver food to nonprofit member agencies and to individuals to help alleviate society’s hunger problem” ( Ataseven et al. , 2018 ). Recently, the number of people suffering from malnourishment is estimated to be at its highest point, and food banks have been vital for the less fortunate ( Tarasuk et al. , 2020 ).

Paradoxically, around 20%–30% of the food produced is wasted annually across the supply chain ( Michelini et al. , 2018 ), leading to two concurrent social issues: food insecurity and food waste. Food banks play a key role in reducing wasted food problems by connecting the abundance in supply with the requests of needy people ( Eisenhandler and Tzur, 2019a ). We refer to Sengul Orgut et al. (2016a ) for a discussion of food bank activities and Schneider (2013) for the political, legal, social and logistical barriers and incentives related to this topic.

Many authors emphasize the importance of the social problems facing food banks. Thompson et al. (2018) report on a qualitative study of the health and well-being challenges of food poverty and food banks. Puddephatt et al. (2020) prove that food insecurity creates health issues. Chen et al. (2018) encourage cash donations by helping people visualize the impact of their contributions. Finally, Waltz et al. (2018) explore barriers to equal food access and current approaches to overcoming social, economic and physical barriers.

In countries with good infrastructure, food banks assist people in need by gathering donations that they later redistribute appropriately and impartially ( Sengul Orgut et al. , 2016a ). Donations are not regular enough to satisfy demand; hence, food banks must deal with the conflict between being equitable (working so that each individual in need has the same likelihood of being served) and being effective (serving the maximum number of people in need). This is a typical problem for nonprofit organizations ( Sengul Orgut et al. , 2016a ; Solak et al. , 2014 ).

to provide essential knowledge for new researchers;

to identify and classify the concrete decisions, pursued objectives and the major operations management problems faced by food banks;

to describe the optimization approaches in the extant literature to address the identified problems; and

to recognize emerging research directions in the field.

To this end, we conducted a systematic literature review on studies related to food bank operation, focusing on optimization models. Unlike Mahmoudi et al. (2022) , who recently reviewed decision support models addressing food aid supply chains, our work differs in the research scope and framework used to classify and position the relevant studies. First, Mahmoudi et al. (2022) reviewed works related to food aid management with no restriction on the organizational structure managing the aid. However, our research focuses exclusively on food banks. By narrowing our research, we observed particularities and objectives in food banks, which are unobserved in food aid distribution networks and worth in-depth analysis. Furthermore, this narrower focus sheds light on how food bank operations differ from humanitarian aid distribution problems. Second, Mahmoudi et al. (2022) classified papers according to the methodology they proposed; those proposing optimization models were further classified into strategic, tactical and operational decision-making problems. In contrast, our analysis adopts a more comprehensive framework grounded on the operations handled by managers at the three stages of the food banks’ supply chain (supply, food banks operations and demand). Given these differences, only 20 references are studied by the reviews. Given that this review contains more than 60 references, we believe that its content differs significantly and complements Mahmoudi et al. (2022) .

The rest of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2 provides the research methodology and describes the criteria for selecting the articles used in this systematic literature review. Section 3 presents and analyses the results. Section 4 includes a discussion and presents directions for further research, whereas Section 5 concludes the paper.

2. Research methodology

This systematic review used the search engines Web of Science and Scopus, which are extensive databases in Operations Research and Management Science (OR/MS). This section describes the criteria used to select the articles, followed by an explanation of the article selection process and the steps to complete the data extraction.

2.1 Databases search

Web of Science: The keywords “foodbank” OR “food bank” OR “food pantries” were searched, as shown.

the expression only appears in the article title, abstract or keywords;

only peer-reviewed articles (excluding book chapters, reviews, notes and editorials); and

regarding the subject area, the following were excluded:

Public environmental, occupational health;

Nutrition dietetics; and

Agricultural economics policy.

Scopus: The keywords {foodbanks} OR {food banks} OR {food pantries} were searched, as shown.

in the subject area, the following were excluded:

Agricultural and biological sciences;

Environmental science; and

Arts and humanities.

A total of 231 articles were found in this database.

We obtained 386 distinct articles from both databases to review. Table 1 summarizes the search criteria.

2.2 Final article selection

include a model or discussion on food bank operations, food banks supply chain or analytics applied to food banks;

include information related to food bank operations;

include information on donations; and

include general information, such as nutritional needs, volunteering and food insecurity.

We also required the papers to be written in English.

A manual selection process was performed on the 386 articles, and we read the title and abstract of each article. If the article met the inclusion criteria above, the paper was downloaded, otherwise it was omitted. Two reviewers were consulted to determine a paper’s relevance when we encountered any uncertainty.

After applying this filter, 86 research articles remained. We checked the content of these papers by reading them fully, keeping only those that fully met the inclusion criteria. This left a total of 52 articles.

The last procedure was to delve into the references cited by the most recent selected articles (we arbitrarily limited ourselves to those published in 2021) to find other articles that might contribute to this literature review.

A total of 9 additional articles were identified from the references, totaling 61 articles. Data retrieved from the databases were exported to Mendeley to continue the data extraction and synthesis.

2.3 Data extraction and analysis

We constructed a table to continue the data extraction, which included the following: title, authors, year of publication, keywords, abstract, summary, problem identification, the main topic and country. This helped us identify papers that included an optimization model contributing to Section 3.3. The rest of the papers were analyzed to contribute to other sections regarding important issues in food bank operations.

A second table was constructed with papers that included optimization models. A deeper analysis was performed for these papers to identify their goals and position the characteristics of the problems they studied concerning the analysis framework proposed in Section 3.3. A total of 18 articles that included optimization models were deeply analyzed.

3. Results and analysis

3.1 statistics.

We examined some facts to establish the importance attributed to food banks. Figure 1 illustrates the total number of articles per year in both databases. The number of related articles published annually is growing, indicating that the interest in this topic from researchers in the OR/MS area has increased. Nevertheless, the highest number of publications per year (19 articles published in 2021) is low compared to other research topics. For instance, one of the most recent systematic literature reviews that focused on mathematical models of humanitarian logistics ( Hezam and Nayeem, 2021 ) reports a rise in published papers from around 100 in 2010 to 200 in 2019.

Figure 2 shows the countries each article addresses, providing an idea of which countries have more food bank related research. Of all publications, 64% were from the UK and the USA; thus, there is a gap in an opportunity to study other countries’ operations to understand the most affected factors.

Finally, Tables 2 and 3 shed some light on where articles on food banks were published, providing complementary information on the publication data. On the one hand, Table 2 reports the journals that published more than three relevant papers, providing their categories according to Clarivate’s Journal Citation Reports. Table 2 confirms that food banks received significant attention from journals in the social sciences, particularly journals in the social issues category.

On the other hand, Table 3 reports the journals in MS/OR that published relevant articles. Overall, articles published in OR/MS journals constitute 26.3% of the papers produced by the database search.

3.2 Food banks’ supply chains and the differences with respect to commercial supply chains

This section introduces food banks’ supply chain operations and discusses their main differences regarding commercial supply chains.

3.2.1 Food banks’ supply chains

A food bank supply chain includes three main actors: donors, food banks and agencies. The term agency is used to describe entities (usually non-for-profit entities) that receive the food and distribute it to individuals.

The flows of food that food banks handle can be organized in various ways, as discussed in the following paragraphs. Figure 3 illustrates some common structures. Donors offer products to food banks on unknown dates and amounts ( Fianu and Davis, 2018 ). In some cases, donations are performed directly at the food bank, the case for network A in Figure 3 ; however, in most cases, the food bank organizes the transportation of donations. In this case, visits to several donors are planned to reduce transport costs, as illustrated by network B . Food banks also receive financial donations that allow them to acquire more goods, particularly supplies that are not commonly donated.

At the depots, food banks verify the donations’ quality, and depending on the agencies’ profile and needs, they assign quantities to be delivered or prepare kits that, once delivered, help cover the needs of an individual or a family for a given period (e.g. a week). Because demand is usually higher than donations, food banks must evaluate methods for being as fair and equitable as possible, simultaneously maximizing the efficiency of the distribution operations.

As per the distribution, the food bank sometimes aids each agency directly (network A ), but agencies are often grouped and visited in routes to maximize transport efficiency (network B ). It is also possible to introduce food distribution points to share the distribution effort between the banks and the agencies (network C ). Finally, it is also possible to organize mixed pickup and delivery routes, as discussed later, visiting donors and agencies (network D ). Although mixed routes improve transport efficiency, they are more challenging to plan and manage.

Donations represent most of the food supplied by food banks. Because supply is generally lower than demand (Gómez-Pantoja et al. , 2020), hard choices must be made daily to decide who receives aid, the types of goods provided and the amount supplied. To this end, optimization models might help design effective food collection and delivery strategies ( Davis et al. , 2014 ).

A large part of food banks’ activities is based on the assistance of volunteers. As do Paço and Agostinho (2012) mention, volunteers are not paid and have highly valued opportunities competing for their time, attention and money; thus, agencies need to understand what motivates volunteers to donate their time to food banks. Furthermore, De Boeck et al. (2017) suggest that working with volunteers with inadequate training in food safety and other relevant knowledge on food logistics may generate bottlenecks and barriers during interactions with food donors and handling perishable food products. Why people volunteer has been studied but remains an unresolved question beyond this study’s scope.

Kim (2015) explains that “one good governance model cannot always be applied to all countries because actors, networks and institutions embedded in unique contexts have their own endogenous properties.” Therefore, structures differing from those described in the previous paragraphs can emerge to cope with specific regional peculiarities. For instance, the food banks in North Korea differ from those observed in occidental countries in several critical aspects, as reported in Table 4 .

Challenging situations usually lead to the emergence of new, better-adapted structures. For instance, Ogazon et al. (2022) discuss how food banks should adapt to cope with the consequences of a sudden event, such as a natural or human-made disaster. The recent COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the food insecurity problem worldwide, so food banks multiplied their efforts to maintain service and adapt to the challenging situation. Blackmon et al. (2021) describe how, during the COVID-19 outbreak, the BOX program launched by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) aimed at purchasing fresh produce, dairy and meat directly from farmers and packaging them into boxes to be delivered directly to agencies and people in need. Thus, food banks became “virtual intermediaries” to coordinate supply and demand between suppliers and agencies.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the structure and governance of food banks are impacted by the region’s social, economic and governmental characteristics. As discussed later, an emerging research stream examines food banks’ growing role in facing extraordinary events, such as natural disasters or other disruptive situations ( Roberts et al. , 2021 ; Ogazon et al. , 2022 ).

3.2.2 Differences between commercial and food bank supply chains

As explained, food bank supply chains can be divided into supply (donors), inventory and distribution management (food banks) and demand (agencies). Commercial supply chains include an additional area: the transformation or manufacturing process (production). Generally, food banks do not perform transformation or conservation of goods; they work as intermediaries to get donations to those in need. Furthermore, four essential aspects distance food banks from commercial supply chains at the distribution and demand levels. First, the uncertainty of incoming food necessitates appropriate levels of internal and external integration ( Ataseven et al. , 2020 ). Second, food banks operate at a time-safe distance, indicating that the early expiration of donated goods limits a food bank’s operating range. Third, dependency on the donated items restricts the choice concerning the types, quantity and nutritional composition of the products offered to beneficiaries, in sharp contrast with the almost unlimited choices offered by commercial supply chains. Finally, because food bank supply chains cannot consider meeting demand as an objective (as supply is continuously lower than demand), the main objective is to distribute donations as impartially as possible in proportion to demand.

Once they collect donations, the food banks aim to distribute food to agencies effectively and equitably. Fairness or equity is one of the distinct topics of decision-making in humanitarian operations and a key issue that impacts all food banks’ operations. The notion of fairness in humanitarian aid distribution has been recently discussed ( Holguín-Veras et al. , 2013 ; Anaya-Arenas et al. , 2014 ; Özdamar and Ertem, 2015 ; Gutjahr and Nolz, 2016 ). While there is no agreement on a definition or metric, Fernandes et al. (2016) proposed a structure as a basis for developing a performance measurement system for humanitarian logistics.

The uncertainty in donations and demand is one of the biggest challenges for food banks’ operational decisions. In contrast, commercial supply chains are mainly concerned with managing time adequately; only the demand side harbors uncertainty, which can often be predictable ( Hindle and Vidgen, 2018 ).

most of the supplies are donations; and

the workforce comprises mainly volunteers, meaning that food banks’ cost structure and improvement opportunities are somewhat different from those in commercial supply chains.

3.3 Analysis of the contributions to food banks’ supply chain operations

We describe the food bank’s supply chain to propose a simple framework to classify and analyze the reviewed papers according to their contributions to the chain’s three building blocks: supply, food banks and demand (see Figure 4 ). The following subsections present the topics contributed by the papers or the decisions discussed for each stage. Finally, we added a fourth stream of contributions that – rooting on the growing business analytics methods and tools – map supply and demand to emphasize the geographical/regional perspective of food assistance networks.

3.3.1 Supply

Uncertainty in the total available supply is one obstacle encountered in food bank operations. Food banks depend on donations, either in the form of goods or cash, made by individual donors, private sector organizations and governmental agencies. Food donations are uncertain in the frequency and the quantity provided, their prediction is challenging ( Alkaabneh et al. , 2021 ), and management constitutes a daily challenge to satisfy the needy population’s demand ( Davis et al. , 2016 ). For instance, Brock and Davis (2015) report that collecting donations from supermarkets is planned without knowing if the food items are available and the quantity is sufficient. This is why initiatives to map the potential existing unused or wasted resources, such as those described in Bech-Larsen et al. (2019) and Hollander et al. (2020) , are vital for maximizing food banks’ supply.

Martins et al. (2019) suggested that donations from private organizations and individuals, key sources of supply for food banks, are more unpredictable than governmental and public funding and donations; they are stable and fundamental for steady operations.

Some challenges derived from the uncertainty of supply extend from the capacity of donors to grant supplies, the diverse number of provisions given, and the reception of spontaneous and sometimes even undesirable donations ( Martins et al. , 2019 ). For these reasons, methods of considering donations differ between authors. Some propose activities to increase donations (donations management), others try to predict the donations received and others consider donations a given parameter.

Donations management : Research into interventions designed to increase or affect contributions to food banks is limited. Farrimond and Leland (2006) confirmed that the location of signs and donation containers next to specific items in supermarkets increases donations of targeted products. Ahire and Pekgün (2018) explained that Harvest Hope Food Bank organizes promotional events and fundraising initiatives to increase food and dollar donations. They propose an integer programming optimization model to plan the optimal number of annual events of each kind to maximize the number of meals served using food and dollar donations.

González-Torre and Coque (2016) studied the potential partnership between marketplaces (significant generators of organic food waste because they sell fresh food) and food banks that might reuse food surpluses. They proposed guidelines to facilitate better management of the food surpluses and estimate the potential volume of organic waste generated by marketplaces that food banks might save.

Regarding individuals’ donations, Bennett et al. (2021) examined the motivations and other factors that encourage individuals (as opposed to businesses) to donate to food banks in the UK.

Donations forecast : Donators usually do not provide accurate information regarding available items or quantities. This can negatively impact inventory management capabilities and cause unnecessary transportation costs. Because of this uncertainty, some authors have proposed models to estimate donations.

Brock and Davis (2015) and Nair et al. (2017) evaluated approximation methods to estimate food availability from various food providers. Brock and Davis (2015) studied food surplus estimation at supermarkets, proposing an artificial intelligence approach based on a multiple layer perceptron artificial neural network (MLP-NN), multiple linear regression and two naive estimates to approximate the average collection amount. The four approximation methods are evaluated in terms of their ability to estimate collection amounts in the next planning period. Their results suggest that the MLP-NN model produces the best approximations. The methods proposed in Nair et al. (2017) can also be used to anticipate a potential donation from a new donor that may appear in the network.

Davis et al. (2016) performed a numerical study to quantify the extent of uncertainty regarding the donor, product and supply chain structure. Several predictive models were developed to estimate in-kind donations, including clustering, exponentially weighted moving average (EWMA) and autoregressive integrated moving average. Their results recommend EWMA as the most accurate forecasting method.

Paul and Davis (2021) proposed a method to identify the supply behavior of donors and cluster them based on the frequency, quantity and type of food donated. Results showed the necessary behavioral attributes to classify donors and the best way to cluster donor data to improve the prediction model, where exponential smoothing provides the best estimations.

Donations modeling : Finally, most papers assume that demand is given as a known parameter or a probabilistic function of known parameters.

Most reviewed models, like Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020), consider the supply as a given parameter or known constant; however, neglecting uncertainty in donations may or may not be acceptable depending on the considered context. Balcik et al. (2014) , Sengul Orgut et al. (2016b ), Eisenhandler and Tzur (2019a ) and Eisenhandler and Tzur (2019b ) addressed food collection and distribution problems where donation and demand amounts are unknown before collection or delivery. They all proposed deterministic models that assumed that the quantity of available food is known. To validate their deterministic assumption, they perform sensibility analysis on their results. Sengul Orgut et al. (2016b ) suggested that, because each agency must collect goods from the food bank, the supply is more related to the food bank’s specific characteristics, such as the available budget, transportation availability and storage capacity, than to the donations themselves. They performed numerical experiments to assess how the variability in the food banks’ receiving capacities affects the solution produced by the deterministic model. Similarly, Balcik et al. (2014) performed probabilistic sensitivity analyses to assess the effect on the models’ deterministic solutions arising from supply uncertainty.

Marthak et al. (2021) studied the prepositioning of food before the strike of a natural disaster, so donations vary according to the severity of the anticipated event by a fixed adjustment factor estimated from historical data analysis.

Finally, other authors model supply as random variables to capture the donation uncertainty. Fianu and Davis (2018) dealt with a single product, so uncertainty only concerns the available quantities at each donor. Stauffer et al. (2022) considered a set of products, so the uncertainty affects the available quantity of each product. Alkaabneh et al. (2021) also considered several products, modeling their quantity and quality (i.e. their nutritional value) as random exogenous variables beyond the food bank’s control.

In summary, food banks’ supply has received limited attention from research; however, contrary to commercial supply chains where demand is the primary source of variability, donations are highly uncertain and constitute one of the biggest challenges to ensuring a fair distribution of food, as confirmed in the following sections.

3.3.2 Food bank operations

Melo et al. (2009) defined supply chain management to be “the process of planning, implementing and controlling the operations of the supply chain in an efficient way,” whereas Hugos (2011) referred to logistics management as “a portion of SCM, that focuses on activities such as inventory management, distribution and procurement that are usually made on the boundaries of a single organization.” Our analysis of the reviewed papers confirmed that most fit better within the latter definition. Furthermore, while distribution is the dominant topic among the reviewed papers, a few focus on inventory management or, in a broader perspective, resource allocation. Only six papers consider network design, defined as the decisions concerning facilities’ location and capacity selection. From the six papers in network design, three study problems jointly decide the number and location of intermediate distribution sites and how they are fed. These joint decision problems are referred to as location-routing or location-transportation problems.

Finally, from the comparison with commercial supply chains, food banks’ supply chains are strongly concerned with resource allocation or how supplies are assigned to agencies or individuals in need. Indeed, most reviewed papers deal implicitly or explicitly with resource allocation problems. Consequently, before discussing this section’s main topics (network design, inventory management and distribution), the following paragraphs discuss the orientations and objectives guiding resource allocation in food banks’ operations.

3.3.2.1 Objectives guiding food banks’ resource allocation.

Although operations efficiency always remains a significant concern, food bank managers are mainly guided by principles of equity and effectiveness. Several papers focus on the nutritional utility of the delivered food. We now discuss these four concepts and how they are addressed in the reviewed papers.

Efficiency: According to Davis et al. (2014) , “while profit is not their objective, food banks, like other nonprofit organizations, must efficiently use their existing resources to best serve their communities.” To this end, operational costs must be minimized or, in other contexts, kept under budget constraints. Martins et al. (2019) included the fixed cost for supporting agencies and the cost for operating storage areas and handling products at food banks in their economic objective function. Islam and Ivy (2021) and Hasnain et al. (2021) included as operational costs the total cost of food bank operation and the cost of receiving and distributing food, computed using the quantity of distributed food, the distance covered and the per-mile cost. Operational costs may include different expenses depending on the context. For instance, Stauffer et al. (2022) included mobile pantries for food distribution. Their objective function includes their fixed cost of allocation and operating cost; however, most authors focus exclusively on transportation costs. Moreover, the total distance is usually considered a proxy for the transport costs. Works proposing location-transportation problems ( Solak et al. , 2014 ; Davis et al. , 2014 ; Reihaneh and Ghoniem, 2018 ) aim to minimize the number of facilities to distribute food. Then they seek to balance the distance traveled by the food bank’s vehicles to bring the food to drop sites and the distance charity agencies travel to grab the food at those drop points. Marthak et al. (2021) consider the cost related to prepositioning and distribution of food on the arrival of a natural event. These costs depend on the traveled distance and the transported quantity.

Finally, although some authors do not target cost or efficiency metrics as objectives, they either restrict the consumption of resources (e.g. by setting a bound on the length of routes) or impose budget constraints. For instance, Eisenhandler and Tzur (2019a , 2019b ) do not include the vehicle’s travel cost in their models; however, they limit the available budget for transportation. Furthermore, Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) impose a limit on the available budget to buy food products.

Equity: Most selected papers intend equity in food distribution as their primary goal. Equity is referred to as distributing goods in proportion to the needs, often estimated as the population living in poverty in an area. Still, reaching an equal distribution of food is challenging because of limited vehicle capacities or the time before the items spoil; hard decisions must be made in these cases. Different methods are used in the literature to address equity, including minimizing the difference between the maximum and minimum values, the variance, the coefficient of variation, the sum of absolute deviations, the maximum deviation or the mean absolute deviation ( Fianu and Davis, 2018 ). Minimizing these objectives can maximize equity, although they usually lead to different solutions. Fianu and Davis (2018) present a model that can assist food banks in distributing uncertain supplies equitably; they measure equity as a function of the pounds distributed per person in poverty (PPIP). They also use a benchmark proposed by their food bank partner, setting the target PPIP to 75 per year. Sengul Orgut et al. (2016b ) and Islam and Ivy (2021) incorporate equity in their models by imposing a user-specified upper bound on the absolute deviation of each agency from perfectly equitable distribution. Perfectly equitable distribution means that food donations are distributed to the agencies so that the total donated food allocated to an agency equals the fraction of the total poverty population assigned to that agency.

Effectiveness: Regarding effectiveness, food banks seek to distribute the greatest quantity of goods while wasting as little as possible. Effectiveness is also essential because waste provokes bad publicity and reduces future donations. Sengul Orgut et al. (2016b ) qualified distribution as effective if the amount of undistributed supply is minimized. This is easy to express in words, but all the issues surrounding food bank operations make this objective difficult to satisfy. Many factors affect food bank operations and considering all of them in one model is impossible. Stauffer et al. (2022) penalized the amount of undistributed food in their objective function. Sengul Orgut et al. (2016b ) minimized the amount of wasted food by ensuring timely delivery of healthy, usable food to the beneficiaries. Sengul et al. (2018) aimed to maximize total food distribution while enforcing a user-specified level of robustness in a context where the amount of donated food that agencies could effectively receive and distribute is uncertain.

Nutritional utility: Food banks play a growing role in food safety, distributing billions of pounds of free food and beverages ( Tarasuk et al. , 2020 ). Ross et al. (2013) investigated the types of food moving through six California food banks to assess the nutritional quality of these foods. They concluded that, although the six participant food banks were moving toward more healthful food than previously, still, further attention and action would be required to continue this trend. Therefore, it is understandable that the research concern works on the quality rather than the quantity of the delivery food. Ortuño and Padilla (2017) aimed to maximize the quantity of energy content (in Kcal) sent daily to the families, subject to volume and weight constraints so that the families feel they receive an equal amount of products. Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) proposed a similar approach, separating the needs of each individual into categories. If the set of products assigned to an individual reaches a given minimal quantity for a given category, the individual is satisfied. The problem’s objective is to maximize the total number of satisfied categories. Ogazon et al. (2022) did not consider nutritional utility as an objective; they proposed a set of constraints ensuring that the mix of products delivered to each agency (e.g. sugary drinks) respects proportions that the food bank managers set. Units of food that do not meet these proportions may not be delivered.

Most of the papers consider more than one dimension. Balcik et al. (2014) formulated two objectives under agencies’ demand uncertainty: maximizing equity and minimizing waste. They empirically demonstrated that solving the problem for the waste-minimizing objective achieves near-minimal waste while providing equitable food allocation. Islam and Ivy (2021) studied trade-offs between operation costs (the total cost of branch operation and the cost of receiving and distributing food), effectiveness (the cost of undistributed food) and fairness (maintaining a maximum deviation from perfect equity). Eisenhandler and Tzur (2019a , 2019b ) included an objective function that balances equity and effectiveness adequately. The function multiplies the measure of effectiveness – the total allocation supplied to all agencies by an equity measure – which is one minus the Gini coefficient of the food allocation vector. Alkaabneh et al. (2021) considered measures of the effectiveness of the resource allocation problem faced by food banks. They implicitly considered an equity performance measure, developing a dynamic programming model in which the primary decision is how much of each product to allocate/distribute to each agency.

Hasnain et al. (2021) explored solutions that prioritize effectiveness and equity (besides efficiency), developing a single period, weighted multicriteria optimization model that provides flexibility for decision-makers to capture their preferences over the three criteria of equity, effectiveness and efficiency.

Finally, Martins et al. (2019) proposed a network design model that accounts for all dimensions of sustainability (economic, social and environmental) through three objective functions. They investigated the trade-offs under the three conflicting objectives and suggested strategies to improve the sustainable performance of a food bank network in Portugal.

This analysis demonstrates an interesting evolution in how models’ objectives are formulated and extend away from those proposed in humanitarian logistics. Recent models are more concerned with the utility of the distributed food (i.e. the nutritional value) than the actual quantity. Interestingly, deprivation, a metric receiving significant attention in humanitarian logistics, is not mentioned in any reviewed papers.

The following subsections present the four topics on which food bank operations have been segmented: network design, inventory management and distribution. The analysis is completed with the contributions of analytic models to the field

3.3.2.2 Network design.

Network design concerns the structure of the network and usually encompasses decisions related to the choice and location of facilities and the election of their capacity. We identified only a few papers that addressed network design problems in the context of food banks.

Martins et al. (2019) considered strategic decisions, including opening new food banks and selecting their storage and transport capacities from discrete sizes over a multiperiod planning horizon. In addition, existing food banks may be closed or have their capacities expanded. Islam and Ivy (2021) presented a mixed-integer programming model to identify the efficient assignment of demand zones to banks and the equitable allocation of donated food from the food banks to the demand zones. They empirically studied the interaction between the cost of shipping donations and the cost of undistributed food and proposed a more flexible supply chain structure where food from local and national sources might be shipped directly to the agencies.

Stauffer et al. (2022) also examined the structure of the food bank supply chain, focusing on how the use of mobile pantries for food distribution (i.e. integrating the last link of their food aid supply chain), additional food bank storage capacity and improved partner agency capacity can improve food banks’ performance. They proposed a stochastic two-stage mixed-integer formulation to perform extensive sensitivity analysis on how these factors impact total costs, equity in distribution and minimized disposal, providing managerial insights and guides on the design of food banks networks. Ogazon et al. (2022) dealt with reconfiguring food bank operations on the verge of a sudden event, such as natural disasters, which provoke sudden variations in the demand and the supply, forcing food banks to adjust their operations to satisfy the needs of the affected people. They proposed several reconfiguration strategies and compared their performance empirically to elaborate guidelines on how the food banks should reorganize their responsibilities concerning the day-to-day model.

The rest of the papers on this topic discussed food distribution problems where the network structure is modified by inserting food distribution points so that agencies travel a reasonable distance to collect the food they ordered from these distribution points, aiming to share the distribution effort between the bank and the agencies. To this end, the number and the location of distribution points must be jointly decided with the routes for delivering the food from the bank’s depots. Davis et al. (2014) studied a one warehouse multiperiod problem where routes mixing collections and deliveries at distribution points must be planned so that a given number of collections must be performed and each distribution point is visited once. This single visit must deliver enough food to satisfy the needs of the covered agencies for the planning period. Routes are limited by the drivers’ allowed working time and vehicle capacity. Davis et al. (2014) proposed a two-step approach to tackle this challenging problem. First, they solve a capacitated set covering problem to determine the location of the food distribution points and the agencies’ assignment. Then, a periodic vehicle routing problem with backhauls determines the collection and delivery schedule. Solak et al. (2014) referred to this problem as the vehicle routing with demand allocation problem, proposing a formulation for the problem and two Benders decomposition-based solution procedures. Reihaneh and Ghoniem (2018) proposed a multistart optimization-based heuristic to tackle larger instances.

Table 5 summarizes the main characteristics of the reviewed papers on network design. Column Main problem formalizes the paper’s aim. Columns Supply and Demand report how problems are modeled in the paper (D = deterministic, S = random), whereas column Objective indicates the nature of the problem’s goal (F = equity, E = efficiency/cost, U = utility, W = waste) and column Horizon reports if the problem spans one (single) or several (multi) periods. Columns Modeling and Solving describe the proposed modeling and solving approaches, respectively. Finally, column Application details if the paper addresses a real or a theoretical context and if the numerical experiments were executed on real or randomly generated instances.

Table 5 confirms that our search led to only two papers dealing with “classic” network design (i.e. deciding facilities’ opening and closing and their capacities), whereas three more papers proposed location-routing problems to reduce transportation costs for food banks. Unsurprisingly, all the papers assumed deterministic contexts that sought to maximize efficiency (or minimize costs) and proposed MILPs to formulate their models and approximated (heuristic) methods to solve them efficiently; however, as mentioned in the previous section, Martins et al. (2019) sought to improve the sustainability of the solutions simultaneously.

3.3.2.3 Inventory management.

Although food banks do not perform transformations or long-term food conservation, some papers address short-term inventory management or restrictions related to inventory capacity. The latter can be observed in Sengul Orgut et al. (2016b ), which considered the distribution of donations over one month as a single period problem. Donations received and food distributed during the period were aggregated and restricted by flow conservation equations that set each bank’s total (inventory) capacity. Sengul Orgut et al. (2018) extended the previous problem to incorporate variability in the agencies’ capacities. They produce feasible and near-optimal solutions using robust optimization if agencies’ capacity varies within specified limits. They also introduce a stochastic formulation that treats the equity limit as an uncertain parameter, providing a feasible solution in the presence of small deviations from perfectly equitable distribution.

Conversely, Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) and Alkaabneh et al. (2021) addressed multiperiod contexts where inventory levels and policies must be handled explicitly. Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) introduced a resource allocation model that considers inventory management and product purchases. The model also considers product-beneficiary compatibility, balanced nutrition and the priority of beneficiaries to decide who is served, what kind of products and how many will be supplied. Alkaabneh et al. (2021) developed a framework for optimizing resource allocation by food banks among the agencies they serve, maximizing the expected utility of agencies over a finite horizon. Contrary to Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020), which assumed that supplies are known in advance, Alkaabneh et al. (2021) considered uncertainty in supply. To handle the uncertainty of future supplies, they proposed an approximate dynamic programming approach that uses the Monte Carlo simulation to estimate the expected utility value of an assignment policy at each horizon period on which a decision is made. Numerical experiments executed on actual instances demonstrated significant improvement in the allocation process over static policies.

Finally, Marthak et al. (2021) proposed a stochastic programming model that considers prepositioning strategies among food bank facilities in high-risk areas for hurricanes. Some researchers outlined the central work of food banks to build community resilience before, during and after disasters ( Roberts et al. , 2021 ). The model considers the uncertainty associated with a hurricane’s impact on each facility regarding the available supplies, donations received and the expected demand for the facility’s service region.

Table 6 summarizes the reviewed papers’ main characteristics related to inventory management. Compared to Table 6 , papers on inventory management are driven by fairness and utility objectives, which align with their tactical rather than strategic decisional scope.

3.3.2.4 Distribution.

Although most analyzed papers report direct food transport from banks to agencies, others propose alternative approaches, including distribution routes or mixed collection and distribution routes.

Lien et al. (2014) and Balcik et al. (2014) addressed similar versions of a sequential resource allocation problem (SRA-e), which considers equity in its objective while obtaining an effective allocation of scarce resources to reduce waste. The problem seeks to create food collection and distribution routes. Food is collected at the first stops and delivered at subsequent stops in the route (the agencies). Because agencies’ demand is not known in advance, the driver must determine the food to deliver at each stop to meet the agency’s demand and reserve food for the remaining agencies on the route. Assuming that the demand follows continuous probability distributions, Lien et al. (2014) propose a dynamic programming framework that allows them to characterize the optimal allocation policy structure for a given customer sequence. The optimal structure is used to develop a heuristic allocation policy for instances with discrete demand distribution. Balcik et al. (2014) extended the SRA-e to a multiroute setting and incorporated travel time restrictions that limit the length of the potential routes. Given the problem’s computational complexity, they proposed a decomposition-based heuristic encompassing three phases to solve the problem: clustering, sequencing and allocation. The heuristic drastically reduced the computational time producing high-quality solutions.

Eisenhandler and Tzur (2019a , 2019b ) present a similar problem: the food bank must determine which agencies to visit, in what sequence and how much to pick up or deliver to each donor or agency. In this version, the food bank determines how much food should be picked up (delivered) from (to) each supplier (agency), considering the limited capacity of the vehicle. Based on this information, the food bank determines a plan for a single day of activity using a single vehicle to collect and distribute the food to the agencies. This setting requires simultaneous vehicle routing and resource allocation decisions to balance two possibly colliding goals: maximizing the total amount distributed and achieving equity in the allocation. Eisenhandler and Tzur (2019b ) contribute a different formulation for the same problem and a matheuristic solution. Table 7 reports the main characteristics of the reviewed papers related to distribution.

In summary, the extant literature’s contributions to food bank operations cover an extensive range of problems that are, in most if not all the cases, related to real applications. These contributions address various situations regarding geographic scope, managerial objectives, the time horizon covered or the aggregation of needs to be satisfied. Network design problems address situations covering large regions and where the effectiveness drives decisions in food transportation. Inventory-related problems concern food allocation, so food transportation is not considered or is a less relevant element in those models. Fairness and the food quality distributed to beneficiaries influence allocation decisions. Finally, distribution models focus on collecting and distributing food over small or local regions. These problems address supply and demand uncertainty and explicitly capture the real-life limitations affecting transportation decisions, such as truck capacity or driving time restrictions. As explained in the following paragraphs, each family of problems addresses and models the beneficiaries’ needs and the demand in different manners.

3.3.3 Demand

Demand points encompass agencies that include shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens that help deliver goods to needy people. Adequate and equitable distribution is vital for hunger-relief organizations, and because supply is almost always lower than demand ( Balcik et al. , 2014 ), it is of the utmost importance to identify and characterize demand. Other than equity in satisfying needs, several considerations must be addressed. For instance, food banks must ensure the quantity and quality of the supplied food, which is difficult because of the limited control of the supply (Gómez-Pantoja et al. , 2020), or minimize spoilage when distributing food to the furthest agencies ( Solak et al. , 2014 ). Additionally, recent research has shifted focus toward a better, more accurate identification of individuals’ needs and the customization of the food they are provided ( Ortuño and Padilla, 2017 ).

Demand estimation : In most cases, demand is a known deterministic parameter. In some cases, agencies estimate and inform the banks about demand. For instance, Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) assumed that the beneficiaries to support and their needs are known. Other authors ( Fianu and Davis, 2018 ; Sengul et al. , 2018) used socioeconomic data related to poverty to estimate food needs in a given area. In particular, Sengul Orgut et al. (2018) estimated demand from poverty data, as referred to in the US Census Bureau (2016).

Estimating demand is critical to avoid or minimize waste in SRA-e ( Balcik et al. , 2014 ), where each truck collects food and then delivers it to the remaining agencies along its route. Because demand at each agency is not known in advance, the volunteer driver must decide the amount of food it delivers at each stop, considering the potential needs of the remaining agencies.

Some authors proposed analytic methods to model and estimate demand. Black and Seto (2020) analyzed an administrative dataset of food bank member usage to provide a descriptive profile of patterns of food bank usage. They applied cluster and regression analyses to identify predictors of the frequency and duration of service usage. They concluded that while many users engaged with food bank services for a short duration with a limited frequency of visits, most visits were made by a small subset of deeply engaged longer-term members, raising important questions concerning the role of food banks and how they can better meet people’s needs.

The volume of food donations is regularly insufficient to meet all demands. Martins et al. (2019) considered the case where an agency applying for first-time food assistance joined a group of agencies waiting to be served. Demand for individual food items may not be fully satisfied, but a certain minimum level of assistance must be guaranteed to all agencies served by a food bank, considering predictable variations.

Demand characterization : Demand satisfaction is not just a matter of delivered quantity but nutritional content. Recent studies focused on the nutritional needs of individuals to define demand or measure their food distribution performance. For instance, Alkaabneh et al. (2021) measured resource allocation plans’ effectiveness based on the nutritional value of the allocation decisions; however, not all families have the same nutritional needs. Thompson et al. (2018) suggested that to estimate the ideal demand of a family, the daily energy necessities, the members that make up the family and the characteristics of each person, such as age, gender, body size and composition, must be considered. Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) highlighted the importance of the compatibility between the products and the beneficiaries. They indicated that compatibility involves nutritional aspects (e.g. baby milk will be wasted if it is donated to a family without babies), cultural aspects (e.g. some religions prohibit certain animal products) and logistical aspects (e.g. a product requiring refrigeration will be wasted if it is given to a family with refrigerator).

Another practical issue concerns grouping the available products into packages for distribution. One of food banks’ key and challenging tasks is that receiving heterogeneous supplies must be allocated to personalized kits for beneficiaries. Garthwaite et al. (2015) concluded that considering the profile of each family and their particular needs while creating the personalized kits brings several benefits and enables food banks to have a more significant impact.

Determining how to measure the nutritional value of the food delivered was addressed by Ortuño and Padilla (2017) and Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020). In their work, Ortuño and Padilla (2017) classified goods according to their nutritional group (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, meats, oils) and their energy input (measured in Kcal), depending on the type of food. The minimum energy requirements of each family were determined according to the number of members and their characteristics (age, sex, physical activity, weight and height). Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) and Ogazon et al. (2022) also considered several categories of nutrients or products, determining that each individual must receive a minimal amount of each to be considered satisfied. The problem aims to determine the individuals to be served and the mix of products assigned to each of them to maximize the total number of satisfied categories while guaranteeing a minimum diversity in the assignment of products, balanced nutrition and compatibility between products and beneficiaries.

3.3.4 Business analytics: opportunities for improving food banks’ supply chain

The emergent field of business analytics is progressively contributing to all possible activities, including food banks’ supply chains. We identified three papers with research contributions that might contribute to improving food banks’ supply chains. From a strategic perspective, Hindle and Vidgen (2018) developed a business analytics methodology and applied it to an agency organization in the UK. The authors developed a logical model that identified the main activities undertaken by the organization. This model was used to identify leverage points and opportunities for business analytics tools, that is, value areas where analytics can be applied, to create value with relative ease. They recognized that combining geospatial analysis and visualization with open data on poverty provided the greatest opportunity because of its potential to predict where food bank aid would be most needed. Sucharitha and Lee (2020) also attempted to answer if food agencies serve their intended recipients sufficiently or sparsely and if the food agencies provide the optimum coverage of donated foods. They combined data from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and demographic data provided by the USDA. They then used a probabilistic model as a clustering approach to analyze the whole database to identify regions within each cluster that lack food agencies near families in dire need and vice versa. Similarly, Brinkley (2017) sought to understand the geographic patterns of local food supply chains in an attempt to relocalize food systems by identifying gaps or “structural holes” in the local food network.

4. Discussion and suggested future research directions

Despite the variety of specific research or the practical questions they raise, the analysis of the papers confirms that the research on food banks is proliferating and gaining momentum. In doing so, the research progressively diverges from the general literature in humanitarian logistics. In our opinion, this can be partially explained by the long-term mission of food banks, which contrasts with the event-driven, often urgent nature of most studies in humanitarian logistics. A recent literature review on humanitarian logistics ( Hezam and Nayeem, 2021 ) focuses on disruptive situations, such as disasters and crises, whereas food banks deal with steady situations. Nonetheless, resilience is a new topic in food banks’ supply chains, as pointed out by Blessley and Mudambi (2022) . They performed qualitative analyses on how disruptive events (the 2018 US–China trade war and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic) affected food banks’ supply chain resilience. The authors explained that food banks responded mainly by adapting storage policies, learning quickly to increase or decrease deliveries according to the food supply, collaborating with external partners, leveraging social capital along the supply chain and encouraging the distribution and consumption of low-demand products.

Black and Seto (2020) indicated that food banks feed a growing part of society, and their impact on public health is being increasingly recognized ( Iafrati, 2018 ). This raises questions on the potential extension of the products and services they might offer to specific populations. From a strategic standpoint, food banks’ impact goes beyond efficiency and, to some extent, equity and should be measured in terms of sustainability; however, among the reviewed papers, only Martins et al. (2019) and Iafrati (2018) addressed the three pillars of sustainability.

Blackmon et al. (2020) demonstrated that the added value of food banks exceeds their actual physical resources (trucks, facilities) when proximity and access to communities matter. This key role and the engagement of food banks in long-term population health explains the development of new and richer objective functions aiming to personalize the specific needs of beneficiaries. Although fairness is still a central issue for food banks, new metrics are being proposed around the idea of “nutritional utility” ( Ortuño and Padilla, 2017 ; Gómez-Pantoja et al. , 2020) in contrast with “deprivation,” an emergent metric in the field of humanitarian logistics ( Holguín-Veras et al. , 2013 ; Gutjahr and Nolz, 2016 ).

Additional research should be dedicated to strategic questions concerning the design of the overall distribution network. Only three reviewed papers address classical network design decisions (e.g. decisions concerning facility locations and their capacity or the network’s structure), and the remaining studies assume all the facilities and their capacities are given. In all the reviewed papers, demand is aggregated at agencies abstracting crucial problems, such as individuals’ access to services, that might be formulated as location or coverage problems. In this sense, Stauffer et al. (2022) suggested that food banks can maximize distribution and equity by integrating distribution to individuals through mobile pantries or sharing distribution operations with partner agencies. New models are required to study the more complex resulting logistic networks. Moreover, combining these new models with the power of emerging analytics tools constitutes a promising research direction that, to our knowledge, has been unexplored in the context of food banks.

Concerning resource management, surprisingly, only one of the reviewed papers ( Blackmon et al. , 2021 ) envisaged using a decision support system to assign volunteers to handle different operations. As pointed out by do Paço and Agostinho (2012) , volunteers are crucial for banks and agencies. Therefore, food banks should aim to maximize their comfort and satisfaction, which adequate work schedules and duty rosters can achieve.

Our last comment is dedicated to supply. Most of the reviewed papers agreed on the importance of supply for food banks, but only a few aim to develop knowledge on managing donations. Only Bech-Larsen et al. (2019) and González-Torre and Coque (2016) examined new potential sources that might redirect food surpluses as donations to food banks. More quantitative studies, such as Brock and Davis (2015) , Davis et al. (2016) and Paul and Davis (2021) , developed models to estimate or forecast donations which, in turn, might help improve demand fulfillment while reducing waste. From a more operational perspective, the reviewed papers said little about purchasing and its leverage for local development. Moshtari et al. (2021) reviewed 51 scholarly articles on procurement in humanitarian operations. Although the differences between humanitarian and food bank operations were established, they raised questions concerning procurement organization, objectives and policies, processes and lack of collaboration among stakeholders that also concern food banks. Similarly, Anaya-Arenas et al. (2018) emphasized how humanitarian organizations, such as Oxfam México, purchase as much aid and supplies as possible from the closest available sources to promote local markets and reactivate commercial activities in the served region. According to the authors, this local sourcing policy may imply higher costs and supply risks; however, it aligns with the sustainable objective of humanitarian organizations. We believe that the same sustainability goals should be emphasized in the context of food banks.

As per the suggested directions for future research, most reviewed papers propose extensions to their formulations or the development of approximated yet efficient methods to solve them. They often suggest extending the proposed experiments to better understand their models’ behavior or perform sensitivity analyses; however, some suggest more general lines of research that might eventually lead to unexplored topics.

Davis et al. (2014) suggested investigating approaches to estimate food availability from donors with different characteristics and generate strategies for inventory management that complement the food bank’s operations. Being able to estimate donations accurately would significantly improve operations.

Gómez-Pantoja et al. (2020) proposed to differentiate and prioritize products according to perishability, which is an essential issue because it leads to the unnecessary waste of food. With this prioritization approach, food banks would improve their operations by having less spoilage and thus be able to deliver more food to people in need.

Solak et al. (2014) recommended exploring methods that allow flexibility when considering food bank operations in different countries. This is easy to say but difficult to implement because of the earlier-addressed limitations; however, most food banks must include some general characteristics in their operations. Therefore, a general model might be elaborated as a base and modified to satisfy each region’s necessities.

Parker et al. (2020) advised exploring other types of collaborations between the banks, including how agencies’ expectations may change over time. Usually, collaborations are not considered because of distance and time restrictions leading to food waste; however, achieving adequate collaboration between agencies can significantly improve food banks’ operations.

In summary, this systematic literature review demonstrated a growing scientific interest in food bank operations, which has inspired various problems and scientific challenges. Moreover, we are convinced that this rising interest will accelerate in the future. Indeed, the crucial role of food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic (Blackmon et al. , 2020) should lead to a significant increase in scientific publications on food banks’ activities and contributions.

5. Conclusions

This study presents a systematic literature review of scholarly articles on food bank operations. The study results show that, from an operations perspective, food banks deal with an extensive range of problems that, although related to issues observed in commercial operations, require the formulation of distinct optimization models. Moreover, some emerging features specific to food banks, such as a significant concern for the delivered food’s nutritional utility and its long-term impact on the populations’ health, seem to differentiate food bank literature from the broader humanitarian logistics literature.

This study makes several contributions to the current literature. First, it provides new researchers with an overview of the food bank supply chain’s features and the challenges faced by food bank operations managers. Additionally, assembling, classifying and comparing the optimization models in this research area helps identify the most relevant characteristics involved in food bank operations, hopefully aiding future works to improve these operations.

Based on this review, we make several recommendations for future research. Work addressing the potential extension of food banks’ role and the set of products and services they offer to specific populations would be valuable additions to the literature and the practice. Furthermore, future models can support the coordination and integration of these services with other programs and services. Individuals’ accessibility to agencies’ services is a crucial matter for food banks, and, in this vein, the merging of optimization models with analytics tools represents a promising research direction. Finally, technology advancements and new business models have brought several opportunities for new potential partnerships of food bank supply chains with their commercial counterparts (i.e. web-based food markets) at various levels or stages of their chains. Also, the proper use of technology can provide tools to avoid waste. In some countries, food retailers and supermarkets use programs that lower expiring products’ prices, thereby reducing waste. The extent to which these technologies can impact the potential amount available for donations is unclear and requires exploration.

This research has limitations. As an emergent and not yet fully established research stream, we observed variability in the scientific terms identifying the topic and its related features. Authors inconsistently use the term “food bank” or related variants (i.e. foodbank) as a keyword or tag to identify their research. For instance, a scoping review on “Moving food Assistance into the Digital Age” ( Martin et al. , 2022 ) does not contain “food bank” in the title, abstract or keywords; however, the paper’s content is enormously relevant for food banks. While the omission of some potential papers does not necessarily undermine the value of this review, it may temper some of our conclusions.

research on food banks

Articles published per year

research on food banks

Articles published by country

research on food banks

Different food banks supply chains reported in the literature

research on food banks

Proposed framework for the analysis of the reviewed papers’ contributions

Article search criteria in the databases

Publications by journals

Articles on food banks published by journals in the OR/MS category

Food bank logistic network model characteristics

Characteristics of reviewed papers on network design

D = Deterministic, S = random, F = equity, E = efficiency/cost, U = utility, W = waste

Ahire , S.L. and Pekgün , P. ( 2018 ), “ Harvest hope food bank optimizes its promotional strategy to raise donations using integer programming ”, Interfaces , Vol. 48 No. 4 , pp. 291 - 306 , doi: 10.1287/inte.2018.0944 .

Alkaabneh , F. , Diabat , A. and Gao , H. ( 2021 ), “ A unified framework for efficient, effective, and fair resource allocation by food banks using an approximate dynamic programming approach ”, Omega , Vol. 100 , p. 102300 , doi: 10.1016/j.omega.2020.102300 .

Anaya-Arenas , A.M. , Renaud , J. and Ruiz , A. ( 2014 ), “ Relief distribution networks: a systematic review ”, Annals of Operations Research , Vol. 223 No. 1 , pp. 53 - 79 , doi: 10.1007/s10479-014-1581-y .

Anaya-Arenas , A.M. , Ruiz , A. and Renaud , J. ( 2018 ), “ Importance of fairness in humanitarian relief distribution ”, Production Planning & Control , Vol. 29 No. 14 , pp. 1145 - 1157 , doi: 10.1080/09537287.2018.1542157 .

Ataseven , C. , Nair , A. and Ferguson , M. ( 2018 ), “ An examination of the relationship between intellectual capital and supply chain integration in humanitarian aid organizations: a survey-based investigation of food banks ”, Decision Sciences , Vol. 49 No. 5 , pp. 827 - 862 , doi: 10.1111/deci.12300 .

Ataseven , C. , Nair , A. and Ferguson , M. ( 2020 ), “ The role of supply chain integration in strengthening the performance of not-for-profit organizations: evidence from the food banking industry ”, Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management , Vol. 10 No. 2 , pp. 101 - 123 , doi: 10.1108/JHLSCM-04-2019-0024 .

Balcik , B. , Iravani , S. and Smilowitz , K. ( 2014 ), “ Multi-vehicle sequential resource allocation for a nonprofit distribution system ”, IIE Transactions , Vol. 46 No. 12 , pp. 1279 - 1297 , doi: 10.1080/0740817X.2013.876240 .

Bech-Larsen , T. , Ascheman-Witzel , J. and Kulikovskaja , V. ( 2019 ), “ Re-distribution and promotion practices for suboptimal foods – commercial and social initiatives for the reduction of food waste ”, Society and Business Review , Vol. 14 No. 2 , pp. 186 - 199 , doi: 10.1108/sbr-11-2017-0094 .

Bennett , R. , Vijaygopal , R. and Kottasz , R. ( 2021 ), “ Who gives to food banks? A study of influences affecting donations to food banks by individuals ”, Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing , pp. 1 - 21 , doi: 10.1080/10495142.2021.1953672 .

Black , J.L. and Seto , D. ( 2020 ), “ Examining patterns of food bank use over twenty-five years in Vancouver, Canada ”, VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations , Vol. 31 No. 5 , pp. 853 - 869 , doi: 10.1007/s11266-018-0039-2 .

Blackmon , L. , Chan , R. , Carbral , O. , Chintapally , G. , Dhara , S. , Felix , P. , Jagdish , A. , Konakalla , S. , Labana , J. , Mcilvain , J. , Stone , J. , Tang , C. , Torres , J. and Wu , W. ( 2021 ), “ Rapid development of a decision support system to alleviate food insecurity at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank amid the COVID-19 pandemic ”, Production and Operations Management , Vol. 30 No. 10 , pp. 1 - 17 , doi: 10.1111/poms.13365 .

Blessley , M. and Mudambi , S.A. ( 2022 ), “ A trade war and a pandemic: disruption and resilience in the food bank supply chain ”, Industrial Marketing Management , Vol. 102 , pp. 58 - 73 , available at: www.linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0019850122000025 .

Brinkley , C. ( 2017 ), “ Visualizing the social and geographical embeddedness of local food systems ”, Journal of Rural Studies , Vol. 54 , pp. 314 - 325 , doi: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.06.023 .

Brock , G. and Davis , L.B. ( 2015 ), “ Estimating available supermarket commodities for food bank collection in the absence of information ”, Expert Systems with Applications , Vol. 42 No. 7 , pp. 3450 - 3461 , doi: 10.1016/j.eswa.2014.11.068 .

Chen , R. , More , A. , Robbins , M. and Tian , D. ( 2018 ), “ Small donation – big impact: visualizing charitable donations ”, pp. 1 - 6 , doi: 10.1145/3170427.3180644 .

Davis , L.B. , Jiang , S.X. , Morgan , S.D. , Nuamah , I.A. and Terry , J.R. ( 2016 ), “ Analysis and prediction of food donation behavior for a domestic hunger relief organization ”, International Journal of Production Economics , Vol. 182 , pp. 26 - 37 , doi: 10.1016/j.ijpe.2016.07.020 .

Davis , L.B. , Sengul , I. , Ivy , J.S. , Brock , L.G. and Miles , L. ( 2014 ), “ Scheduling food bank collections and deliveries to ensure food safety and improve access ”, Socio-Economic Planning Sciences , Vol. 48 No. 3 , pp. 175 - 188 , doi: 10.1016/j.seps.2014.04.001 .

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Food Waste, Food Insecurity and the Globalization of Food Banks

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Distribution of fresh foods in food pantries: challenges and opportunities in Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Jiayi Huang 1 ,
  • Stephanie Acevedo 1 ,
  • Mallory Bejster 2 ,
  • Caitlin Kownacki 1 ,
  • Dale Kehr 1 ,
  • Jennifer McCaffrey 1 &
  • Cassandra J. Nguyen 3  

BMC Public Health volume  23 , Article number:  1307 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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The charitable food system distributes free food to clients across the U.S., but many nutrition and health-focused efforts encounter barriers to success, which were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The objective of the current study was to understand barriers and facilitators to distributing nutritious, fresh foods in food pantries across Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Forty-nine pantry representatives participated in focus groups in October 2021. A codebook was created based on relevant literature, stakeholder interests, and an initial review of the recordings. Transcripts of each group were coded and analyzed using a basic interpretive approach.

Pantries distribution of fresh foods was impacted by community partners, food bank policies and practices, and the quality of the donated fresh foods. Physical constraints of pantries limit fresh food storage capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified stressors in the charitable food system which highlighted how community partners might improve fresh food distribution.

Focus groups with food pantry representatives across Illinois provided key insights that can inform future efforts to facilitate fresh food distribution in the charitable food system. Future studies should evaluate the effects of the suggested initiatives and changes at the food pantry, food bank, and policy levels.

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Summary box

What is already known on this topic? Barriers exist in effectively distributing fresh foods to clients of the charitable food system.

What is added by this report? The current study explored barriers and facilitators to distributing nutritious, fresh foods in pantries across Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted existing and introduced new challenges.

What are the implications for public health practice? There are opportunities for change to improve fresh food distribution in the charitable food system across all socio-ecological levels, including in individual food pantries, among regional food banks, and at the national policy level.

In 2020, the year in which the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic, over 38 million people in the U.S. experienced food insecurity, defined as uncertain access to adequate food [ 1 ]. The U.S. government has implemented several programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children ; and the free or reduced price National School Lunch Program to address food insecurity. These programs provide supplementary monetary support for groceries, food vouchers, and prepared meals, respectively, to individuals who meet eligibility criteria. However, gaps in federal food security efforts leave some household food needs unmet. A private decentralized charitable food system has emerged to offset unmet needs from governmental programs.

The charitable food system is comprised of various actors. These include donors and non-profit organizations which supply food, financial, and in-kind support to community-serving agencies. These agencies include large ware-housing food banks (which source, transport, and store large quantities of food) and smaller food pantries (which distribute food directly to individuals). Footnote 1 For many years, this system focused primarily on distributing as much food as possible, particularly shelf-stable goods [ 2 ].

Recently, advocates have championed a shift to distribute more nutritious foods while emphasizing client choice [ 3 , 4 , 5 ]. Food banks and pantries have implemented a variety of initiatives, including distributing lists of nutritious foods to donors, updating distribution practices from pre-packaged boxes to client-choice models, and partnering with external organizations [ 4 , 6 , 7 ]. In 2020, guidelines were published by Healthy Eating Research (a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that funds research and policy efforts) to promote consistent nutrition classification of foods distributed across the system in the U.S. [ 5 ].

However, many pantry-based initiatives encounter barriers to providing nutritious foods in dignified settings. Challenges include storage limitations, perceived lack of interest among clients, constrained budgets, and reliance on donations [ 8 , 9 , 10 ]. Fresh foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, dairy, lean meats), in particular, are highly perishable and require temperature-controlled conditions to maintain palatability, safety, and nutrient value. In addition to these barriers, the COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges in distributing foods and maintaining choice for clients while adapting to shifting public health guidance [ 11 , 12 ]. It has yet to be established how food pantries barriers and facilitators to nutrition promotion were different during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current study explored barriers and facilitators to distributing nutritious, fresh foods in pantries across Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of this qualitative inquiry can be used to inform promising areas for intervention to improve the capacity of the charitable food system to attain, store, and distribute fresh foods.

This study was an expansion of earlier research focused on facilitators and barriers to healthy food distribution among pantries in Lake County, IL (a predominantly suburban county comprised of 1,368 square miles in the northeastern corner of Illinois which borders Lake Michigan). The results informed opportunities for change in the local charitable food system, but the team was interested in understanding perspectives across the state. While preparing for statewide focus groups, team members learned of an effort to create a formal Farm to Food Bank system in Illinois. The research team connected with this larger effort, narrowing the focus of investigation to fresh foods, a specific type of nutritious food with a shorter shelf-life and unique transportation and storage challenges.

Data collection

A script was developed to facilitate a discussion about challenges and opportunities faced in distributing fresh foods in pantries. The script ( Supplemental Material ) included a definition of what fresh foods were (and were not), followed by 11 open-ended questions regarding sourcing, pick-up, storage, distribution, and partnerships, with follow-up prompts and probing questions. These categories of influence were selected based on the literature documenting the shift of the charitable food system to distribute more nutritious foods while emphasizing client choice [ 3 , 4 , 5 ]. The script was reviewed by external colleagues with expertise in regional food systems and charitable foods networks who suggested edits that improved flow and clarity. Three individuals (authors SA and MB as well as an additional staff member) without prior qualitative research experience were trained as focus group moderators. Training included an overview of best practices and mock focus groups to practice moderation skills.

Participants were recruited with convenience sampling via e-mails sent from food banks and Extension staff. To be eligible, individuals had to be at least 18 years old, fluent in English, and work at a pantry. Three 2-h focus groups, at varying times and dates, were offered in north, central, and southern Illinois. Each of the 9 focus groups were hosted virtually using Zoom (Version 5; San Jose, CA). Focus group participants did not have prior professional relationships with the moderator or notetaker in the session. Before the focus group began, participants completed a brief descriptive quantitative questionnaire. This questionnaire included participant sociodemographic characteristics (Table 1 ), participants’ affiliated food pantries’ characteristics (Table 2 ), and participants’ beliefs about their food pantries and their roles (Table 3 ). All questionnaire items and possible responses are shown in Tables 1 ,  2 and 3 . At each focus group the moderator read the consent form and participants verbally consented. The study protocols were approved as exempt from review and a waiver for written documentation of informed consent was provided by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Institutional Review Board (protocol #22162). All methods were carried out in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations. Participants were compensated with a $20 gift card.

Focus groups were digitally recorded, and the files were transcribed verbatim. One research team member reviewed the transcripts while listening to the recording to ensure accuracy and blind any personal identifiers. All data in the study were anonymized before use. A codebook was drafted based on related literature, stakeholders’ key interests, and an initial reading of transcripts. This draft was collaboratively refined to reflect 30 distinct codes (categorized into 21 challenges and 9 opportunities). Five members of the research team tested this codebook on the same transcript, then clarified code definitions and added exclusion criteria and/or quotes, as necessary. Each transcript was independently coded by 2 team members using the final codebook, and team members discussed any discrepancies to come to consensus. One team member served as a mediator to make a final decision if consensus was not reached. After all transcripts were coded, the codes were condensed into five distinct levels of influence, mirroring aspects of the Social-Ecological Model (SEM) [ 13 ] (Fig.  1 ). Excerpts within these levels were analyzed using a basic interpretative approach, with common sentiments, key ideas, and variety of experiences reflected using summaries and exemplary quotes. Questionnaire responses were characterized with descriptive statistics.

figure 1

Model of influences on food pantry fresh food distribution

Forty-nine individuals participated in nine focus groups hosted in October 2021. Descriptive characteristics of participants based on survey questionnaire responses are shown in Table 1 . The pantries represented were diverse, reflected in the wide range of individuals served each month, varying affiliations, choice for clients, and rurality of location, among other reported characteristics (Table 2 ). Most pantries (85%) were affiliated with a food bank in their respective region, though seven representatives reported no or were unaware of an affiliation. When asked about their level of agreement regarding their pantries on the quantitative questionnaire, many respondents agreed that they offered a wide variety of fresh foods and that the foods met the client health needs (Table 3 ). However, a smaller number of respondents felt they could take actions to increase the quantity of fresh foods in their pantry. The statement least likely agreed to was “ my food pantry can respond to the dietary needs of cultural and ethnic groups we serve, ” confirmed by 62% of respondents.

The analysis of focus group transcripts resulted in challenges and opportunities which were organized into five distinct levels of influence (Fig.  1 ). These included 1) societal, 2) community, 3) organizational, 4) interpersonal, and 5) product, described in the sections below.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a significant force, impacting operations and pantries’ abilities to acquire, store, and distribute fresh foods. Many pantries moved from face-to-face shopping-style distribution models to shopping lists or pre-packaged boxes. This shift required more volunteers to pack and distribute boxes, coinciding with lower volunteer turnout. Pre-packaged boxes limited client choice, making distribution of fresh foods more challenging because products pre-selected for clients would not necessarily align with clients’ preferences. As one representative noted: “Unfortunately, when we were packing the boxes during the pandemic, we did find some foods [left] like outside on the street.”

Though pantries regularly experience shifts in the number of clients served each week, representatives noted greater shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most indicating reduced numbers, paired with an increase in food donations, presenting difficulties in distributing food before spoiling.

All representatives identified fresh foods as a priority. However, there were aspects of working within the charitable food system which impacted their capacity to address this priority. Grants or other resources available to nonprofit organizations were instrumental in allowing pantries to directly purchase fresh foods or cold storage units. However, fresh food distribution was not their only priority. Many representatives stated that if they had extra funds, they would purchase supplies to help clients shop (i.e., shopping carts) or to meet non-food needs of clients (i.e., personal hygiene products).

Many pantries identified the broader community as integral in distributing fresh foods. Pantries had relationships with diverse organizations, including senior centers, law enforcement, schools, other pantries, farmers and farmers markets, businesses, park districts, faith groups, emergency shelters, and gardeners. Partnerships were leveraged to acquire foods, raise funds, connect with individuals in need, and distribute excess perishable foods. These partnerships were particularly critical in the face of changing conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“When we started getting more food, we began to share that … with shelters at the end of the week, but that has been continuous now, so we... Even if we have vegetables that we don't think will make it the next week, we'll call that agency and they will come and pick up those items to make sure that they are utilized.”

Pantries affiliated with food banks spoke about the value of this relationship. Many received all or most of their fresh foods, at no or low cost from the food bank. Despite the value of these relationships, participants described difficulties and confusion with the size, quantity, and shelf-life of items ordered which disrupted plans and capacity for fresh food distribution. This ambiguity along with concerns about quality caused some pantries to avoid certain products:

“ The food bank [does] not put expiration dates in the order form for the dairy items. So, I don't know when I'm ordering, am I ordering one day expired yogurt, or nine days expired yogurt or not expired yogurt? So, then I hesitate to order the dairy products, even when they're free .”

Representatives expressed challenges in meeting some food safety laws and guidance such as requirements to use temperature-controlled trucks, which pantries had limited access to. A few representatives noted how new food bank agreements restricted their ability to source fresh foods from local grocery retailers: “ unbeknownst to us, [food bank] went to some of the bigger places like [grocery store] … and had them sign a corporate contract that they would only give [food] to them .” Participants also frequently mentioned that restrictions on redistributing excess food to other pantries were a barrier, resulting in wasted food. This restriction was particularly cumbersome in the face of large donations of fresh foods coupled with lower numbers of clients and volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizational

The physical space of pantries, including structure and size, impacted pantries’ abilities to receive, store, and distribute fresh foods. Many participants noted the small size and limited storage of their pantry. Notably, limited cold storage was the most frequent challenge mentioned. This impacted the types and amounts of fresh foods they could store, as many fresh foods (e.g., fresh meat, and dairy products) need to be refrigerated or frozen. One participant shared “ we are always limited by our cold storage capability. The [food bank] might make for example, 15 crates of eggs available, but we can only handle five. ” Unsurprisingly, when participants were asked how they would spend a $5,000 grant, many said they would purchase refrigerators or freezers. However, some participants noted that they could not add more cold storage even if available due to facility space limitations.

Transportation was another challenge for many pantries. Many pantries did not have adequate vehicles or volunteers to pick up fresh foods. One representative reported partnering with other pantries to coordinate fresh food pick-ups for multiple pantries at one time. Another challenge was the timing of pick-up or deliveries in relation to the pantries’ food distribution. If a pick-up or delivery date is too far out from the day of distribution, fresh foods may mature beyond peak freshness and become waste. Many representatives described how an ideal system would allow for more frequent deliveries of fresh foods directly from local sources, bypassing storage at local food banks when possible.

While many pantries worked with multiple entities in the community to obtain fresh foods, few pantries had food procurement or nutrition-related policies. One exception was a policy focused on the quality of fresh food a pantry will accept: “ we have developed a nutrition policy in order to work with some of our rescue partners and let them know, we're not here to take your garbage .”

Interpersonal

The capacity of pantries to distribute fresh foods relied heavily on the people within the charitable food system. Many representatives emphasized their pantries were volunteer organizations limited by the number of volunteers as well as volunteers’ prior experience with pantry policies, nutrition knowledge, and familiarity with food safety guidelines. When pantries receive an abundance of fresh produce, removing overripe or unsafe items relied on volunteers’ relevant knowledge of food safety and pantry policies. This required more volunteer time and attention compared to assessing expiration dates on shelf-stable donations.

Donor relationships were critical to every pantry who participated. Many pantries shared hesitation in voicing their needs with donors for fear they would stop donating. However, one participant stated that when they communicated with donors, they responded positively. "So, I had to tell them...I could only take either every other week or half the amount every week. And they said, "okay, we'll find somebody else for the other half".

Representatives wanted clients to be considered when distributing fresh foods. Donors and volunteers may have dissimilar cultural or social backgrounds than clientele, causing disparity between foods donated and clients' needs. One example shared was: "We like having the milk as well, but since we're outside, a lot of our people are walkers. In the hot weather, it's hard for them to get that home in time that it won't spoil quickly." Another representative noted that some clients had dental challenges, which made crisp fresh foods (i.e., apples, celery) less appealing. Fresh foods can also be unappealing to clientele if they have limited experience preparing them or if preparation equipment is not readily available (e.g., clients living in temporary shelters or hotels). Finally, representatives believed that inconsistent guidance on the best buy, use by, sell by, and expired by dates left clients confused regarding food safety.

Representatives noted varying experiences with external stakeholders in their efforts to distribute more fresh foods. Fresh foods were received from a variety of sources, including food rescue organizations, farmers, local donors, and university-based gardens, as examples. One facilitator of fresh food distribution was a food voucher program, which allowed clients to redeem vouchers for fresh foods at a local grocery, bypassing pantry storage limitations. Many representatives also partnered with other pantries but were cautious in naming who and how they partnered, as their food bank was unsupportive: " Our partners are pantries that are nearby. They're not competitors. We're all in the same business. … a lot of that stuff happens frankly, under the radar or out the back door." Representatives frequently commented that they wished they worked more closely with other pantries to share food, resources, and information.

Several challenges experienced by pantries were related to fresh food characteristics. When fresh foods were past their peak, there was limited time to distribute, resulting in wasted food. Pantries desired fresher, higher quality food to maximize the distribution time period: “ It needs to be good quality stuff that we all as food pantries have the opportunity to have some time to distribute it before it goes bad .” Food waste also stemmed from food quantity challenges. Many representatives noted they received a lot of certain foods which were unpopular with clients or not feasible to distribute completely given the amount received, distribution hours, and number of clients served.

Pantries also indicated they desired more food variety. Pantries often received a large amount of a few items rather than a diverse spread: “ We'll get massive amounts of one thing, like we'll have 10 cases of apples or something, and nothing else .” Finally, some representatives raised concerns over a lack of culturally relevant foods for the population they served.

As the charitable food system continues to evolve from delivering mainly pre-packaged shelf-stable goods to more fresh foods, barriers exist in effectively distributing it to clients. The present study illustrated specific barriers and facilitators Illinois pantries faced in distributing fresh foods. Important factors included community partners, food bank practices, federal policies, and characteristics of donated fresh foods. Physical limitations presented challenges, with cold storage the most frequently noted barrier. The COVID-19 pandemic, during which this study was conducted, magnified stressors in the charitable food system that further highlighted how community partners can improve opportunities to distribute fresh foods.

Pantries have partnerships with various external stakeholders who provide food, volunteers, and resources. Such connections are essential for pantry operations. Many study participants indicated they wanted more connections but lacked the time, energy, or knowledge. Community organizations, like Cooperative Extension (a system of community-based professionals affiliated with state- and territory-based universities which work with local citizens and groups to solve problems using research-based knowledge), can help forge these partnerships given their knowledge of the communities they serve. One tool available for this work is the Nutrition Environment Food Pantry Assessment Tool (NEFPAT), which quantifies a food pantry’s use of policy, systems, and environmental strategies to promote nutrition and dignity among food pantry clientele [ 7 ]. Two recent studies using the NEFPAT demonstrated how Extension staff helped pantries develop new partnerships, adopt nutrition policies, and encourage healthy choices [ 6 , 14 ].

Pantries' efforts to distribute fresh foods can be impacted by their respective food banks’ policies. Pantries receive most of their food from food banks [ 15 ]. Present results indicated that pantries were limited by the foods available, information provided about the food, transportation options, and timing of orders in relation to their food distribution. A recent study found that 24 pantries ordered healthier foods when the food bank ordering system incorporated nutritional rankings for items [ 16 ]. Providing additional information about expiration dates; packaging; and food quality, as suggested by study participants, may impact pantries’ orders of fresh foods.

Food banks also have a role in influencing practices in their network, such as how pantries partner. Partnerships among pantries can provide an opportunity to share best practices and mitigate potential food waste [ 17 ]. Although valued by study participants, some food banks restrict food sharing among pantries to maintain fair share allotments in a region, reduce food safety risks, and abide by USDA regulations. For example, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) foods can only be supplied to certain agencies that provide exclusive assistance to defined populations. Approval processes are required before any food can be transferred between agencies [ 18 ]. As illustrated by the model produced in the study, pantries’ fresh food distribution is impacted by the broader food system, policy landscape, and socio-historical conditions [ 13 ]. Thus, national policy change should supplement activities within individual pantries and food banks. As one example, policymakers might consider changing TEFAP restrictions so that pantries can work collaboratively to respond to their region’s shifting food supply without concerns of reprimand.

Food waste was a common problem cited by participants. Such waste results from low quality and excess quantity of foods. Some representatives are hesitant to reject food from donors, fearing damaged relationships that lead to decreased donations. These sentiments are illustrative of a scarcity mindset that has been described as a barrier to the evolution of the charitable food system [ 4 ]. To combat this issue, some pantries have adopted nutrition policies that outline quality requirements of donated food. These policies can communicate to stakeholders a dedication to quality for clients, decrease time spent sorting foods, and, ultimately, decrease food waste.

Representatives shared a common desire for direct donations from local growers. This would bypass storage in grocery stores or food banks, lengthening the shelf life of fresh foods in pantries. State-level policies that encourage diversion of fresh foods directly to pantries may decrease food waste. Policies like this were notably absent in a recent review of state-level food donation policies across the U.S. [ 19 ]. Instead, liability protection for donors was the most common. Sixteen states have tax incentive policies for donations [ 19 ], but such policies do not consider the quality of food donated. Florida was the only state with a policy regarding food recovery to reduce waste but specifically targeted surplus fruits [ 19 ]. Future opportunities include state-level policies that earmark fresh foods for pantries or revised tax incentives to consider quality, nutrition, or freshness of foods.

Pantries’ facility capacities hinder their fresh food distribution. Challenges of cold storage and refrigerated transportation were echoed in every focus group. The vital nature of cold storage has been reported previously [ 20 , 21 ]. Cold storage increases pantries’ capacity to store foods in high demand, such as meat, eggs, and dairy [ 22 , 23 ]. While some communities have grants available to purchase cold storage for pantries [ 24 ], many in the current study noted they lacked space or wiring for additional cold storage units. Another solution that bypasses facility and transportation limitations is voucher programs that allow clients to exchange vouchers for fresh foods at grocery stores. However, this program relies on partnering grocery stores, and client transportation to grocery stores can be challenging [ 21 ]. Thus, pantry and community characteristics should be considered when addressing barriers to fresh food distribution.

The precarious balance between foods donated and client needs in the charitable food system was magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, pantries experienced increased demand due to businesses closing and increases in unemployment [ 25 ]. As the pandemic continued, policies to increase SNAP benefits and participation in other nutrition programs may have reduced pantry demand [ 26 ]. The fluctuation in clientele at pantries coincided with the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program [ 27 ], which provided pantries an abundance of fresh produce, dairy, and meat. Clients who received excess food may decrease the frequency of their pantry visits, which could explain the lower client numbers reported by study participants. Pantries in the current study, like other pantries across the U.S. [ 25 ], transitioned from face-to-face shopping-style distributions to pre-packaged boxes or drive-thru distributions to mitigate the COVID-19 transmission risk. These transitions, along with increased food donations, necessitated additional volunteers. Yet, representatives noted difficulties recruiting volunteers due to high risk or fear of exposure to the COVID-19 virus [ 28 ]. In facing these challenges, the resiliency of pantries was illustrated as representatives described how existing partnerships with pantries and stakeholders helped them meet the needs of community members. The value of resiliency afforded by community partnerships has been noted previously [ 29 ], and will likely be important in the face of future emergency scenarios.

Although this study adds newfound insight into pantries’ barriers and facilitators to fresh food distribution, it should be interpreted with its limitations. The sample size was limited, and participants were recruited using convenience sampling. However, to improve generalizability, pantries across Illinois were recruited to increase geographic and sociocultural variability. As participants had to be fluent in English, insights from individuals fluent solely in other languages were missed. However, though Spanish and Polish are common non-English languages spoken in Illinois, it is unclear whether any pantries in Illinois rely solely on staff and volunteers who are not fluent in English. Finally, the surveys completed were not directly linked with qualitative transcripts, so it was not possible to compare focus group responses by characteristics captured on questionnaires, such as pantry size. This was outside the scope of the current study but would be a valuable line of further inquiry.

Conclusions

Focus groups with pantry representatives across Illinois provided key insights that can inform future efforts to facilitate fresh food distribution in the charitable food system. Opportunities for change were identified across all levels of the SEM. At the pantry level, suggested donation lists and quality standards can be developed and shared with donors to minimize volunteers’ sorting time and resulting food waste. At the food bank level, additional information in the ordering system that reflects important fresh food characteristics, when available, would be valuable. Lastly, changes to food donation policies at the state or federal levels may further improve quality and reduce waste. Future studies evaluating the effects these suggested initiatives have on the quality and quantity of fresh foods distributed are warranted.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due to disclosure risk concerns but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Food pantries are referred to simply as “pantries” throughout the remainder of the paper.

Abbreviations

Nutrition Environment Food Pantry Assessment Tool

Social-Ecological Model

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Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to the many professionals, community members, and organizations who made this study possible. First, we would like to acknowledge the Eat Well Action Team with Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center’s Live Well Lake County Initiative for initiating this investigation and the Liberty Prairie Foundation, via the Lake County Community Foundation, for their roles in the initial Lake County focus groups. Thank you to Steve Ericson, from Feeding Illinois, for contributing funds for participant compensation and for review of an earlier draft of the manuscript. We would also like to acknowledge the Illinois Farm to Food Bank Initiative for informing the direction of this research and for members’ feedback on data collection and interpretation. Thank you to Trinity Allison for assisting with moderation of focus groups. Finally, thank you to all individuals who participated in focus groups. We are grateful for the time you invested and the candid thoughts you shared.

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Jiayi Huang: formal analysis, investigation, writing – original draft; Stephanie Acevedo: formal analysis, investigation, writing – original draft; Mallory Bejster: conceptualization, formal analysis, investigation, writing – review and editing, visualization; Caitlin Kownacki: conceptualization, investigation, writing – review and editing; Dale Kehr: conceptualization, formal analysis, investigation, writing – review and editing; Jennifer McCaffrey: writing – review and editing, supervision; Cassandra J. Nguyen. PhD: conceptualization, methodology, formal analysis, data curation, writing – original draft, project administration.

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Huang, J., Acevedo, S., Bejster, M. et al. Distribution of fresh foods in food pantries: challenges and opportunities in Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Public Health 23 , 1307 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-16215-4

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Research Improves Food Bank Effectiveness, Equity

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Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed new computer models to improve the ability of food banks to feed as many people as possible, as equitably as possible, while reducing food waste.

Food banks serve as networks, collecting food from many different sources and distributing it to local agencies that then share it with people in need. The researchers, who launched this project eight years ago, quickly realized that there is a great deal of uncertainty in food bank operations. Supply and demand both fluctuate – which researchers anticipated.

“But we found that capacity – the ability of local agencies to collect, transport, store and distribute food – was also variable,” says Julie Ivy, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “These agencies are often small and rely heavily on volunteers.

“Our goal was to develop models that account for uncertainty in a food bank network’s capacity and can help food banks distribute food efficiently and equitably – ensuring all of the regions served by the food bank are treated fairly – while minimizing food waste.”

“Our work here was conducted with the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, but these are challenges that are common to most, if not all, food banks, as well as for national food collection and distribution networks, such as Feeding America,” says Irem Sengul Orgut, a former Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of the paper. Orgut now works for Lenovo.

For this project, the researchers developed two models, which can be used in conjunction with each other. The first model uses historical data to establish ranges of how much capacity each county has. The model then uses those ranges, in conjunction with each county’s needs, to determine how food supplies should be distributed.

The second model takes into account each county’s need and capacity – or ability to distribute food in a timely way – to try to feed as many people as possible, as equitably as possible, across counties before the food goes bad.

“Some counties have agencies with more volunteers, more refrigerated storage, or better transportation resources, allowing them to distribute more food before it goes bad,” says Reha Uzsoy, a co-author of the paper and Clifton A. Anderson Distinguished Professor in NC State’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering. “But if those counties get all the food, it wouldn’t be equitable – other counties would suffer. The second model aims to find the best possible balance of those two factors.”

“We now have these two models, which are pretty complex,” Ivy says. “We’re currently working with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina to find ways to implement the models that are user friendly for food bank staff and volunteers.”

Specifically, the researchers are working with North Carolina A&T University and a company called Performigence to develop software that can be used to expand these models and put them into use. That work is being done with support from the National Science Foundation, under grant number 1718672 , titled PFI:BIC – Flexible, Equitable, Efficient, and Effective Distribution (FEEED).

“This work is relevant to food banks, broadly, but the fundamental issues are also relevant to disaster relief efforts,” Ivy says. “Really, any situation in which there is a scarce resource, a need for equity, and a robust suite of challenges in distributing the resource. As a result, this may also be of interest to disaster relief researchers.”

The paper, “ Robust Optimization Approaches for the Equitable and Effective Distribution of Donated Food ,” is published in the European Journal of Operational Research . The paper was co-authored by Charlie Hale of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. The work was done with support from the National Science Foundation under grants CMMI-1000018 and CMMI-1000828 .

Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Robust Optimization Approaches for the Equitable and Effective Distribution of Donated Food”

Authors : Irem Sengul Orgut, Julie S. Ivy and Reha Uzsoy, North Carolina State University; Charlie Hale, Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina

Published : Feb. 17, European Journal of Operations Research

DOI : 10.1016/j.ejor.2018.02.017

Abstract: Motivated by our eight-year partnership with a local food bank, we present two robust optimization models to support the equitable and effective distribution of donated food over the food bank’s service area. Our first model addresses uncertainty in the amount of donated food counties can effectively receive and distribute, which depends on local factors such as budget and workforce that are unknown to the food bank. Assuming that the capacity of each county varies within a range, the model seeks to maximize total food distribution while enforcing a user-specified level of robustness. Our second model uses robust optimization in a nontraditional manner, treating the upper bound on the level of allowed inequity as an uncertain parameter and limiting total deviation from a perfectly equitable distribution over all counties while maximizing total food shipment. We derive structural properties of both models and develop efficient exact solution algorithms. We illustrate our models using historical data obtained from our food bank partner, summarize the policy implications of our results and examine the impact of uncertainty on outcomes and decision making.

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New research highlights a shifting priority at food banks: tackling the root causes of food insecurity

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06.08.2021, 2:45pm

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Food banks and pantries saw a surge of need during the pandemic. To keep helping effectively, they’ll have to address systemic shortfalls.

Starting in late March 2020, food banks, pantries, and other charitable food organizations experienced a sharp surge in need. That’s around the time Covid-19 restrictions began causing spikes in unemployment, especially among lower-wage workers who may already have been living paycheck to paycheck. The orgs’ increased needs included traditional food distribution services, but with significantly more first-time clients; services they hadn’t been compelled to offer before, like home deliveries and curbside pickups; and increased volunteer labor, as the generally older, retired volunteer pool stayed home due to illness or fear.

These were just a few of the findings in a study released this May by the Duke World Food Policy Center and advocacy nonprofit WhyHunger. Researchers surveyed 242 organizations in 39 states for a close-up look at the emergency food landscape as it was battered by the pandemic. The study confirmed—no real surprise after snaking lines outside food pantries—that the vast majority of these organizations were overwhelmed by demand. 

But embedded in the study’s data is some revolutionary news: 68 percent of frontline organizations like food pantries and 80 percent of hunger advocacy organizations believe they should focus more effort on tackling the root causes of food insecurity, including poverty and structural racism within the food system. Yes, they’d been largely able to get ever more sustenance to food-insecure Americans during the last chaotic year. But they also recognized that charitable feeding cannot go on as it currently exists. 

“A whole industry has developed around charitable feeding, yet we’ve barely pushed below the 12 percent food insecurity rate.”

In the last 50 years, “a whole industry has developed around charitable feeding, yet we’ve barely pushed below the 12 percent food insecurity rate,” said Alison Cohen, WhyHunger’s senior director of programming. “What we’re seeing now is community-based emergency food providers embracing the idea that charity is not going to end hunger. We’re at the proverbial crossroads … where we can continue to buck up the emergency food system, or we can be honest and say: ‘This is no longer an emergency because it’s a chronic need.’”

Katie Martin, executive director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions, and author of Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries , called this philosophical shift “exciting and encouraging.” In the past, many anti-hunger organizations have made the straightforward decision to focus largely on the most pressing need: food distribution. But due to the pandemic and a renewed awareness of racial and economic injustices, “people are realizing we have to think beyond food,” Martin said. And charitable food operations are recognizing they need  to advocate for the very changes that would improve outcomes in their sector. 

The shift is happening alongside the national conversation about who doesn’t have enough to eat and why, as well as how to make a lasting dent in food insecurity. The Biden administration has taken aim at poverty with a new monthly child tax credit that will hit in July, Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) cards for families whose children had no access to school meals last year, and two rounds of stimulus payments. 

“What we’ve seen in response to the pandemic is that government really stepped in to make it easier for people to access SNAP and [WIC] and school meals and other financial supports, things anti-hunger advocates have been clamoring for for decades,” said Martin, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and the National School Lunch and Summer Food Service programs. 

The trick: figuring out how to make these more solvent times last. 

“If you lift the hood and look under there, [these programs] as they currently exist are really out of line with the reality of people’s needs.”

During the pandemic, the WhyHunger study showed that 88 percent of food banks saw an increase in demand for existing services and half added new services. Government funding and private donations increased concurrently, according to Martin, to meet the needs of a rapidly swelling number of food-insecure Americans—from 35 million in 2019 up to an estimated 50 million in 2020. 

They also experienced struggles that made their core mission much harder. Fifty-two percent of these organizations didn’t have enough volunteers to meet the need, 63 percent didn’t have adequate refrigeration to store fresh foods (a barrier to nutrition security ), and the vast majority reported they suffered the whims of unpredictable supply chains. 

But a significant number of food banks and pantries also began implementing programs to address racial inequities in the food system. That included pushing to make some pandemic SNAP waivers permanent, and overhauling the program to increase access and benefits. Currently, the average benefit is about $4.50 per person per day and 18 percent of SNAP-eligible Americans aren’t enrolled in the program, acc o rding to USDA data. The racial connection to food insecurity is also clear: Pre-pandemic , 28 percent of Black and 13 percent of Hispanic (versus about 7 percent of white) U.S. residents utilized charity food services. 

Charitable food groups also aim to implement universal school meals so all kids can eat for free, and to make P-EBT a permanent summer and holiday feeding solution . “If you lift the hood and look under there, [these programs] as they currently exist are really out of line with the reality of people’s needs,” said Diane Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

To alleviate racial and economic injustices, charitable organizations have also come to realize they need to advocate for better immigration policy and fair wages.

To alleviate racial and economic injustices, charitable organizations have also come to realize they need to advocate for better immigration policy and fair wages. “That is new, the idea of supporting living wage and fair wage campaigns, underscoring the critical importance of economic justice” in trying to eradicate food insecurity, said Cohen. Not to mention, “More than 50 percent of folks who use community-based food pantries on a regular basis are using them not just for emergencies; this has become a chronic need for many families.” 

According to Martin, fair-wage advocacy work needs to target corporate America, too. Although companies may make generous donations to food banks and pantries, they could have a much more significant and lasting impact by offering living wages, benefits, and other financial support to free their workers from dependency on the charitable food system. (Relatedly, the Biden administration has thus far been unsuccessful in its bid to increase the federal minimum wage for all U.S. workers.)

Additionally, charitable food orgs can implement what Martin calls “workforce evolution”: connecting pantry visitors to job-readiness and skills-building programs, and partnering with potential employers to connect them to workers. That evolution should also encompass their own volunteer workforce. For example, said Cohen, “Imagine hundreds or thousands of volunteers getting training not just about how to package food, but in why [they are] here in the first place, and what are the underlying reasons we’ve had this highly sophisticated emergency food system in place for 50 years.” More of such training would lead to higher numbers of engaged advocates, she believes. 

Cohen and Martin would like to explore more dignified ways to serve clients: providing mobile distribution where appropriate, allowing people to “shop” instead of receiving pre-packed food boxes, and increasing access to healthy foods from local farms. Racial and economic justice would also mean paying living wages to food pantry staff; being open multiple days a week; and “flipping 180 degrees when it comes to education,” said Martin. Rather than simply working to educate clients about healthy foods and how to cook them, “we need to listen to food pantry guests and have them educate us about what types of food they’re requesting, what foods are in line with their cultural heritage , and what locations are most convenient to pick up food, then provide that education to donors.”

Schanzenbach said she’s optimistic that the current momentum both outside and within the charitable food world could finally start yanking food insecurity out by its roots. That said, neither she nor Martin nor Cohen believe the need for the charitable food system will disappear anytime soon. “Lower-income people always suffer longer during recessions and for them, recovery is slower,” Schanzenbach pointed out. “I’m telling my friends in the charity food sector and anyone else who will listen that we’re still going to see elevated need for a while.”

In the meantime, work among charitable food organizations to understand how structural racism perpetuates economic injustice, which perpetuates food insecurity, continues apace. “But there’s still so much to learn about how to dismantle it,” said Cohen.

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Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food policy and agriculture, sustainability, and science for outlets such as the Washington Post, JSTOR Daily, Sierra, Ensia, and Civil Eats. Find her at lelanargi.com.

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Food Bank For New York City regularly conducts research on the extent and demographics of food poverty in New York City, access to government nutrition assistance and income support programs, and the needs of our member network .

Our research helps us to determine and address the need for emergency food, government nutrition assistance, income support, and nutrition education programs throughout the five boroughs, as well as helping to inform policy at the city, state and federal levels.

Food Bank’s Latest Research

New York City’s Meal Gap 2016 Trends Report

The Meal Gap Under the Microscope (Research Brief, 2015)

The Hunger Cliff One Year Later (Research Brief, 2014)

Hunger’s New Normal (Emergency Food Network Report, 2013)

Research Archives

Emergency food network.

Food Bank’s emergency food network reports include the NYC Hunger Safety Net report series, which is designed to track trends in hunger and create research-based solutions to hunger throughout the five boroughs. The reports include findings on the population relying on emergency food programs (EFPs) including soup kitchens and food pantries; the operations, resources and services of EFPs; and residents’ access to food assistance.

NYC Hunger Experience

The NYC Hunger Experience report series tracks annual trends in difficulty affording food among New York City residents. Food Bank For New York City contracts with Marist College Institute for Public Opinion to conduct telephone interviews with a random and representative sample of city residents. Socio-demographic findings identify which populations throughout the five boroughs are having the greatest difficulty affording food throughout the year in order to inform policy solutions and address the problem of food poverty.

Policy Papers

Food Bank’s policy papers include reports, policy briefs, white papers, and strategy documents that use data from our research and other sources to inform public policy at the city, state, and federal levels. These publications are instrumental to our ongoing efforts to raise hunger awareness and spur legislative action to end food poverty.

Hunger in America

Feeding America regularly collaborates with member food banks and food rescue organizations throughout the United States to conduct studies on emergency food programs (EFPs) and the people they serve. Food Bank For New York City participates by conducting interviews with residents accessing EFPs and distributing surveys to the EFP network throughout the five boroughs. The Hunger in America: New York City & State reports draw upon local, state and national findings, as analyzed by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

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Serving up kindness: How to help food banks, food rescues and more tackle food insecurity this holiday

Check out how "GMA" is helping address hunger this holiday season.

Millions of Americans will rely on some form of food assistance and generosity of their local communities this holiday season to secure a meal.

Although the prevalence of food insecurity varies considerably by state, as a whole, 1 in 8 households, or 44.2 million people in the U.S. experience food insecurity or lack of access to an affordable, nutritious diet, according to the Food Research and Action Center .

Forty-nine million people turned to food programs in 2022 alone, according to Feeding America , further highlighting how much of an impact those resources can have to help those in need of access to affordable, nutritious food for themselves and their families, especially at a time when inflation is driving up the price of groceries.

PHOTO: Volunteers and DeMarco Morgan help fill boxes for Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry.

To help fight hunger disparity as food banks across the country are feeling the pinch when it comes to keeping shelves stocked, "Good Morning America" is serving up kindness and lending a hand to organizations across the country.

Snapshot of participating food banks across the U.S.

Atlanta, Georgia : Atlanta Community Food Bank Brooklyn Park, Minnesota : Second Harvest Heartland Chicago, Illinois : Greater Chicago Food Depository Dallas, Texas : North Texas Food Bank Houston, Texas : Houston Food Bank Flint, Michigan : Food Bank of Eastern Michigan Lake Charles, Louisiana : Second Harvest Food Bank Los Angeles, California : LA Regional Food Bank Wichita, Kansas : Kansas Food Bank North Carolina : The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina in Fayetteville

Feeding the soul through volunteering to feed others

PHOTO: A volunteer from Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry helps hand out food donations in New York City.

In Harlem, hungry residents are greeted by Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry volunteers with a warm smile and a hot plate of food.

Camesha Grant, vice president of community impact and investment for the organization, told "GMA" that there's a difficult potential reality for residents that serves as the catalyst for this imperative work.

"Everyone in New York City is potentially one step away from our pantry lines because you never know when you might lose a job or when your circumstances might change in your family," Grant said.

Jennifer Caslin, who works with Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, echoed those sentiments, telling "GMA," "These are people who are our friends, our neighbors, people who go to school with your kids -- you just never know what's going on with somebody."

In Chicago, Marianne Nelson, a truck driver at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, told "GMA" that they "see the need, that urgency in your pantries and in the people -- if they don't get this [food] today, they may go hungry tomorrow. That's what drives me."

For head chef Sheri Jefferson and her culinary team at Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry, feeding those in need is as important as feeding your soul: "Everything that we cook with, we serve with nothing but love."

PHOTO: Head chef Sherri Jefferson helps feed her community at Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry.

Eight years ago the single mom of three said she found purpose in her new beginning as a trained chef.

"I remember the first time that I served meals when I was helping out, I was an assistant and I watched faces. I saw me," she said. "I saw days when you know how some people will say, 'I don't have a dollar to my name,' I saw days when there was nothing."

Every meal and interaction at food banks is a reflective experience that's fueled almost entirely by donations and time from volunteers.

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New York volunteer Javier Gonzalez told "GMA" that the most rewarding part is "the people -- whether it's the team here at the food bank, the volunteers that I work with," or "the clients that, you know, come armed with smiles and their shopping carts and really share such beautiful gratitude."

Jefferson added, "I think people forget or they see soup kitchens as being one particular thing -- you're homeless, you're this or that -- [but] once you actually come and get a real visualization and understanding, your heart can only go out to these people."

Zeroing in on zero-waste and rescuing precious resources

In addition to food banks, food rescue organizations such as City Harvest in New York stop food from going to waste and bring it to partner soup kitchens and food pantries across the city. This year alone, City Harvest is on track to rescue 77 million pounds of food.

City Harvest driver Ade McCoy has worked with the nonprofit for five years, and "GMA" joined along for a ride to see how each stop of his nearly 16 per day -- which spans from local supermarkets to Michelin-starred restaurants -- serves as an opportunity to feed those in need.

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Grocery stores like Wegmans rolled out several pallets stacked with everything from poultry to fruit, while chef Eric Ripert wheeled out a cart full of fresh food and produce from the kitchen of his famed seafood restaurant, Le Bernadin.

After all the stops, McCoy drops off all the items at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen for their food pantry, where people line up to get their hands on quality, nutritious items.

"These people, they don't even have to say thank you to me. You don't have to say thank you. I can see it in your face already. Cause I know a lot of times when we pull up in our truck, they're smiling already, they know what they're about to get," McCoy said. "To me, that's gratifying -- that's what it's all about, honestly."

All the volunteers help make City Harvest possible, including people like Ceil Witherspoon who discovered the organization in the food line herself and has now been helping for nearly a decade.

"I realized as I'm standing on the line, I should be on the other side helping out, because I could do better over there," Witherspoon told "GMA. "It brings kind of like a happiness that people can depend on you, even if it's for a bag of onions."

She added that while a lot of people think they wouldn't use or need this resource, they too might eventually "wind up on the line -- You're always going to need help somewhere."

Church farm grows food for those in need

At Mt. Gilead Farm in Richmond, Virginia, parishioner William Dugger Sr. has been tending to the nondenominational Christian church's land since 2019 to provide fresh, locally grown food for the community in need.

"It’s a blessing to be a blessing. So I wanted to help someone else to navigate through life as I've been helped," Dugger, who goes by Captain, told "GMA."

According to Feeding America , as of 2021, 1 in 12 people in the state faced food insecurity -- that's over 700,000 people worrying about where their next meal might come from.

"This is going on our fourth year now and [the] year's not up -- and we done harvested over 41,000 pounds [of produce already]," Dugger said. "We went from 5,000 to 41,000 pounds in four years.”

As a result of that hard work and steady growth, Mt. Gilead Farm has been able to assist the Chesterfield Food Bank Outreach Center directly.

The farm has also added education to its mission, teaching local kids and teens how to farm and about all the benefits it can provide.

Uplifting a Louisiana Community in Need

Second Harvest Food Bank in South Louisiana has been hard at work caravanning pallets of food to a hungry community in need, where one in eight people experience food insecurity -- Lake Charles.

After the two fatal Category 4 hurricanes destroyed the area, including five grocery stores, the community came together to find a solution with Second Harvest to create a mobile market that brings affordable groceries closer to the residents experiencing food insecurity.

"Lake Charles is a special community. They've been hit by multiple hurricanes," Brittany Bowie, Impact Operations Director for Second Harvest told "GMA." "When you think about specifically North Lake Charles not having those grocery stores, that's access to quality of life, of not having food. So our mobile grocery stores [are] making groceries [available in a] mobile market, that goes into different parts of Lake Charles so that we can provide that essential needs to those community members."

Bowie said when the team goes into the community they're "identifying the most impactful needs to them and how do we respond."

Second Harvest volunteer Alisa Stevens told "GMA" "it's just grown exponentially -- some days we have 150 transactions that we complete in a two hour period."

The groceries are sold at steep discounts with vegetables ranging in price from 25 cents to $1.50, a dozen eggs for $1.50 and a pound of ground beef for $3.

One of the residents who makes use of the market, Bim Smith, told "GMA" that those foods purchased from a traditional retailer would cost "maybe triple the price we pay here."

Already, Smith has checked off her family's holiday grocery needs for just over $30.

"I feel so blessed -- I'm not speaking just for myself. I'm speaking for them, too," she said of her fellow community members.

"It's a feeling that you get that a paycheck can't replace. It is just knowing that you're making a positive difference in someone's life," Stevens said on what it means to volunteer with Second Harvest.

How to get involved to fight hunger

Whether it's collecting canned and nonperishable goods to donate to a local food pantry or rallying a group of friends to volunteer at a soup kitchen, there are plenty of ways Americans can get involved. Check your local food pantries and explore non-profit organizations in your area to volunteer food, culinary skills or other forms of donating.

PHOTO: Volunteers inside the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

More ways to help food pantries

Even if you can't lend a hand by cooking or collecting food in person, there are plenty of ways to get involved, even without being physically present.

Organize an online food drive

People can host a virtual food drive with these easy steps from Feeding America .

Fundraise with friends and family

Start an online fundraiser through Team Feed and Feeding America to get friends and family involved.

Get social savvy

Share efforts to fight hunger on social media and spread the word.

Check in with local businesses

Ask local restaurants, cafes and food businesses if they have systems in place to distribute perishable and unused food.

Volunteer and say thank you

Find a local food bank here and check in to see their need for volunteers. Thank food bank staff and volunteers on the front lines who help millions of families. Kindness goes a long way, especially during the holidays.

An earlier version of this story was originally published on Dec. 7, 2023

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Hunger Report

Since 2020, the Capital Area Food Bank has produced an annual Hunger Report detailing the food-insecurity crisis in our region.

research on food banks

These data-driven reports have illustrated the widespread hunger challenges that existed before the pandemic began, and the staggering level of food insecurity that remains amid the slow, uneven economic recovery.

The food bank’s latest report , published in September 2023, found that 32% of the Washington region – more than 1.2 million people – didn’t always know where their next meal would come from at some point last year. That’s essentially unchanged from the 33% of respondents who reported experiencing food insecurity in the food bank’s 2022 survey.

The data in the food bank’s Hunger Report 2023 are from a general population survey of nearly 5,300 residents that was conducted by the Capital Area Food Bank and NORC at the University of Chicago, one of the most trusted independent social research organizations in the country.

These reports have been intended to help inform and accelerate work being done to advance food security and increase equity in the greater Washington area.

In addition to describing the scope of the hunger challenges across our region, each includes recommendations for actions that every sector can take to address widening socioeconomic divides and create a region in which more people can thrive.

Explore our Hunger Reports

research on food banks

Hunger Report 2023

Despite signs of an improving economy, Hunger Report 2023 found that food-insecurity rates across the region remained staggeringly high amid a slow economic recovery; soaring inflation; and the end of expanded federal benefit programs.

research on food banks

Hunger Report 2022

A first-of-its-kind general population survey about food insecurity and inequity in the region, the 2022 Hunger Report painted a new picture of the pandemic’s profound toll on the ability of residents to put food on the table.

research on food banks

Hunger Report 2021

Featuring data from a survey of 2,000 CAFB clients, the 2021 Hunger Report revealed dramatic changes in the face of hunger locally — including large spikes in the percentages of children and Latino households among those who are newly food insecure.

research on food banks

Hunger Report 2020

The food bank’s first Hunger Report in 2020 sounded the alarm on a growing hunger crisis in our region. It provided a previously unavailable holistic look at food insecurity in the Washington region.

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Implementing food bank and healthcare partnerships: a pilot study of perspectives from charitable food systems in Texas

Natalie s. poulos.

Department of Community Health, University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, 11937 US Hwy 271, Tyler, TX United States 75708

Eileen K. Nehme

Molly m. o’neil, dorothy j. mandell, associated data.

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Partnerships between charitable food systems and healthcare systems have been forming across the country to support individuals and families experiencing food insecurity, yet little research has focused on these partnerships, particularly from a food bank perspective. The objective of this exploratory pilot study was to identify implementation challenges and facilitators of charitable food system and healthcare partnerships from the food bank perspective.

Texas food banks with existing food bank/healthcare partnerships were identify through website review and support from Feeding Texas. Interview questions were tailored to each interview, but all focused on identify program components of the food bank/healthcare partnership and implementation barriers/facilitators of the partnership. In total, six interviews were conducted with food bank/healthcare partnership leaders ( n  = 4) and charitable food system experts ( n  = 2) about their experiences of working with food bank/healthcare partnerships. All interviews were completed via Zoom and took between 30 and 60 min to completed. Detailed notes were taking during each interview, and immediately discussed with the complete research time to formulate broad implementation themes.

Interviews suggest unique implementation challenges exist at all levels of food bank/healthcare partnerships including the partnership, program, and system levels. Partnership-level implementation challenges focused on issues of partnership scale and data collection, sharing, and analysis. Program-level implementation challenges focused on food and produce expectations. Structural-level implementation challenges included issues of food safety, subsidized food regulations, and patient privacy. Implementation facilitators included leadership support, mission compatibility/organizational readiness, food insecurity training, and identify of partnership champions.

Conclusions

This study adds to the growing interest in food bank/healthcare partnership as it highlights unique implementation challenges and facilitators for cross-sector partnerships between healthcare systems and community-based charitable food systems. Ultimately, we believe that collaborative discussion among leaders of charitable food systems and healthcare systems is needed to overcome outlined implementation challenges to better facilitate sustainable, equitable implementation of food bank/healthcare partnerships.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of many Americans to food insecurity, meaning that at times they were unable to acquire adequate, nutritious food for the household [ 1 ]. In 2018, approximately 11.1% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity [ 1 ], yet a recent analysis of the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey found that rates of food insecurity have doubled overall and tripled among households since the COVID-19 pandemic began [ 2 ]. This is problematic as food insecurity associated with a wide range of negative physical and mental health outcomes throughout the life course [ 3 , 4 ].

The recognition of food security as a critical social determinant of health has led to resolutions from leading health professional organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics [ 5 ] and the American Academy of Family Physicians to promote screening and interventions that address food insecurity [ 6 ]. However, some healthcare providers are uneasy about screening for food insecurity because they feel unprepared to make adequate referrals to support programs [ 7 ]. To create a strong referral option for healthcare providers and improve the support available to individuals and families experiencing food insecurities, partnerships between food banks and healthcare providers have been gaining interest across the country. These partnerships are often unique and tailored to both the food bank and healthcare partner. Although partnerships are relatively new, Feeding America, the largest national network of food banks in the United States, has begun advocating for the development of food bank/healthcare partnerships as evidenced by the release of two resources that address the importance and need for increased food insecurity screening among healthcare providers, as well as examples of organizational readiness for healthcare partners interested in partnering with food banks [ 8 , 9 ]. Feeding America suggests that through screening of food insecurity by the healthcare provider and referral to the charitable food system, individuals and families experiencing food insecurity will be more likely to receive food needed to decrease hunger.

Research on food bank/healthcare partnerships has begun to provide insights into the clinic experience and context of these partnerships. For example, four models of partnership have been identified in the literature including partnerships focused on food insecurity screening within the healthcare setting followed by referrals to local food banks and pantries [ 10 – 13 ], in addition to clinic interventions addressing populations with specific disease profiles such as diabetes [ 14 , 15 ], the establishment of co-located food pantries within clinical settings [ 16 ], and food prescription programs [ 17 ]. Yet, little research has considered implementation of food bank/healthcare partnerships from a charitable food system perspective and this perspective is needed to inform effective guidance for both food banks and healthcare systems.

The purpose of this pilot study was to explore the challenges and facilitators to implementing partnerships between food banks and healthcare, specifically from the perspective of food banks. This study uses qualitative interviews with charitable food system representatives to outline implementation challenges and facilitators needed to successfully implement and sustain food bank/healthcare partnerships.

Food banks with healthcare partnerships were identified through a review of food bank websites in Texas and documentation on Food Bank/Healthcare Partnerships from Feeding Texas, the state-wide organization that supports collaboration across food banks [ 18 ]. Of the 21 food banks in Texas, eight food banks were identified as having an active food bank/healthcare partnership in 2020. One additional food bank suspended their food bank/healthcare partnership in 2019. To identify additional implementation challenges, individuals with extensive experience working alongside food banks were identified through Feeding Texas contacts or known professional contacts. Each charitable food system expert was chosen to represent different perspectives and experiences with charitable food systems including state-wide food bank networks and community nutrition expertise. Potential participants were invited by email to participate in virtual interviews. In total, the eight food banks that were identified as having a food bank/healthcare partnership were asked to participate. Two charitable food system experts were requested to participate to provide perspectives of working within the charitable food system.

Questions for each interview focused on identification of food bank/healthcare partnership programs, implementation challenges and facilitators for these partnerships, and sustainability challenges for food bank/healthcare partnerships. Interviews were completed on Zoom by trained research staff and took between 30 min to an hour to complete. Detailed notes were taken during each interview, and immediately reviewed and discussed by the complete research team. Structured interview questions were not asked of each participant nor was the interview recorded to allow for interviews to be based on participants experience and expertise, while simultaneously protecting participants privacy.

Generation of themes was derived through inductive analysis of interview notes and iterative discussion with the complete research team until consensus was reached. All team members have graduate-level education and experience in qualitative methods and analysis. Individual participants are not attributed to thematic content, as the focus of the interview was on organizational implementation. All interviews were completed in June 2020.

Data pertaining to the food bank/healthcare partnership was the only data collected during interviews. After reviewing the Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines on human subject research, this study was determined to be nonhuman subjects research according to HHS guidelines [ 19 ]; therefore, the Institutional Review Board was not needed.

Overall, eight food banks and two charitable food system experts were contacted to participate in the interviews. A total of six interviews were completed. Four of the food banks contacted did not respond to the participation request. Each food bank participant directly worked within the food bank/healthcare partnership ( n  = 4). Charitable food system experts included individuals with extensive knowledge of food bank networks ( n  = 1) and management of charitable food organizations (n = 1). See the Table  1 for the program scope and experience of participants.

Descriptive characteristics of food banks and charitable food system experts interviewed ( n  = 6)

Responses were organized into implementation challenges at the partnership level, program level, or structure/system level and implementation facilitators for creating sustainable food bank/healthcare partnerships. Each is discussed in below using context from interviews.

Hyphenate Partnership-level

Participants made it clear that discussions about expected program scale within a food bank/healthcare partnership should be at the center of partnership planning and negotiation. For example, participants indicated that food banks work the best “at-scale,” meaning they function efficiently when they can deliver large quantities of food to communities. Ultimately, they suggest that larger the program scale the better, when it comes to working most efficiently with food banks. Participants went on to suggest that if a food bank is considering partnering with a clinic that serves a small population, it could be challenging or not seen as a priority for the food bank, as outcomes such as pounds of food delivered are the primary outcomes for a food bank.

Another implementation barrier reported by participants centers around data: data collection, data sharing, and program evaluation. All participants suggested that food banks often do not have the capacity or expertise to collect data or enter large amounts of data, nor are food bank staff commonly experienced or trained in data collection, yet they understand that without data to support the program, there is little chance of the program surviving because of funding pressures to produce measurable outcomes. Problematic data sharing was also a common theme within interviews. Specifically, participants noted that even with data agreements between the food bank and the healthcare providers, healthcare partners often did not collect complete data or did not provide timely data reports back to the food bank as outlined in agreements. All participants also mentioned that some clinics may not want to share or have the capacity to share individual level data because of patient privacy concerns. These difficulties with data sharing are seen as a problem for food banks because it is difficult to show program success to current and future funders with incomplete or missing data. Data discussions during interviews almost always ended with a focus on evaluation. To facilitate effective program evaluation, participants emphasized that food banks should think ahead to what metrics and outcomes are essential to allow for tailored data collection across programs and prevent excessive data collection on measures that are not useful.

Program-level implementation challenges

When entering a partnership between charitable food partners and healthcare providers, multiple participants emphasized the need of clear communication and discussion about food expectations. For example, food banks operate with significant amounts of donated foods, so certain foods cannot be guaranteed. This variability often creates frustration because clinics can have expectations that are unachievable by food banks. Given the known variability in food, food banks should be clear on what it can deliver early in the formation of the partnership to ensure a positive relationship between food bank and healthcare partner.

Another common implementation challenge discussed among participants was an inability of the food bank to receive a variety of produce, a commonly requested item from healthcare partners. Reliable and varied produce is not something that most food banks are able to provide year-round. For example, within a 30-pound box of produce, clients may only get 2–3 types of produce, as it depends on what is in season and available in bulk. Issues of culturally appropriate foods were also discussed, as not all food banks will have access to bulk produce that is culturally appropriate or familiar/easy to cook with for recipients. To help with food and produce consistency, results suggested food banks should consider working with local farms to produce consistent produce.

Structural challenges

All participants discussed the structural implementation barrier of food safety requirements. Participants reiterated that few healthcare partners have adequate refrigeration to safely store produce or perishable foods. This lack of safe food storage can often result in a limited variety of foods available within food boxes distributed at clinic sites. Expired food presents another structural challenge for food bank/healthcare partnerships as a significant amount of food available in food banks has been donated. When relying on donated food, as all food banks and pantries do, participants suggest the food bank and healthcare partner need to have clear guidelines around how to handle expired food that enters the charitable food system.

Participants also highlighted that many food bank programs are funded through federal and state programs with that carry government regulations that specify on how funding is used. While participants reiterated that food banks have a strong purchasing power for commodity and government foods, food banks are also required to use that purchased food for specific populations. For example, participants noted that food items purchased through government funded programs commonly required recipients to acknowledge income eligibility requirements, which can make distributing food to children particularly complicated because children are unable to legally complete the income verification forms. One exception to the income verification required discussed among participants was when the food was highly perishable (i.e., produce). These highly perishable foods can be distributed to any clinic visitor, regardless of income, to ensure that the produce was distributed quickly.

Given the nature of any healthcare partnership, issues of patient privacy were discussed by participants as a barrier that must be overcome or addressed before entering a partnership. Participants indicated that food bank/healthcare partnerships would likely involve data sharing of sensitive medica data, and therefore, food bank staff should receive training on patient privacy and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), something that is currently uncommon in food bank staff trainings. Participants also discussed that healthcare partners need to have a similar understanding of protected patient data. Specifically, results highlighted that some healthcare systems see sharing food insecurity screening results with the food banks as a violation of HIPAA, yet other healthcare partners willingly share this information with the food bank. This discrepancy should be addressed in early discussions of data sharing between the food bank and healthcare system.

Implementation facilitators

Across interviews with food banks and charitable food system experts, four facilitators needed for developing and sustaining food bank/healthcare partnerships were 1.) leadership support for addressing social determinants of health, 2.) mission compatibility/organizational readiness, 3.) food insecurity training, and 4.) identification of program/partnership champions.

All participants emphasized that need for leadership and staff at both the food bank and healthcare partner to have a strong desire to support all social determinants of health. Specifically, food bank leadership should have an interest in addressing other social determinants of health in addition to food access, and clinical partners should understand the interconnectedness of food insecurity with other social determinants of health. To address a variety of social determinants of health among food bank clients, participants suggested that food banks should participate in local health coalitions to collaborate with partner agencies and facilitate development of referral strategies.

The importance of mission compatibility and organizational readiness across both food banks and healthcare partners was also highlighted across all participants. Food banks must ensure that a food bank/healthcare partnership would further the food bank’s mission priorities, as it is possible that this kind of partnership may not be of interest or within scope for all food banks. Participants also reiterated that healthcare partners must have the willingness to treat food insecurity as an essential part of health and be willing to devote time and resources toward the partnership.

Food insecurity training was also discussed as a critical facilitators of food bank/healthcare partnerships. Participants felt it was essential for healthcare partners to receive training on the significance of food insecurity and how to successfully identify food insecure patients using the Hunger Vital Signs, a validated two-item food insecurity screening questionnaire based on the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module to identify households at risk of food insecurity [ 20 ]. To support the partnership, participants also suggested that healthcare partners should universally screen all patients to ensure equitable access to program resources.

Program champions on both sides of a partnership was also discussed as a program facilitator. Within the food bank, there should be a partnership/program leader, as this person will be the point person for healthcare partnerships, decision making, and partnership outreach. Similarly, there is a necessity for a healthcare champion with dedicated time for the partnership that also holds leadership responsibility within the clinic, as this person will help facilitate partnership programs and ensure that the clinic upholds its responsibility.

Partnerships between charitable food systems and healthcare systems have the potential to provide support for at-risk communities through strategic support for both healthcare and emergency food relief. Study results outline unique implementation challenges for food bank/healthcare partnerships from the perspective of the charitable food system that are often not included in the literature discussing these food bank/healthcare partnerships. Results also outline implementation facilitators among food banks with existing food bank/healthcare partnerships.

Implementation challenges identified in this study can be organized into categories including partnership, program, and structural-level challenges. Partnership challenges are those that need to be discussed during formation of the partnership, as they hinge on the ability for both partners to work together efficiently and equitably. The most mentioned partnership-level implementation challenge was partnership/program scale. Scale was discussed in a few capacities including the number of participants that could be served, as well as the industrial-level scale that food banks operate most efficiently. This finding mirrors a recent review that suggested successful implementation of programs and partnership by food banks hinges on the ability to keep costs low [ 21 ], such that the program must be scaled to make the cost-benefit sustainable to the food bank.

The importance of data collection and evaluation were highlighted among implementation challenges. Results suggest that food banks and healthcare partners should invest time and energy into reaching an agreement on measurable outcomes that show meaningful success for both partners. This means that both food banks and healthcare must rethink traditional measures of success such as pounds of food distributed or clinical biometric health markers such as body mass index or hemoglobin A1c, a measure of long-term blood sugar control, as there are many other aspects of health. For example, it is reasonable to believe that food banks and healthcare partners would both value an outcome of increased healthcare provider self-efficacy for screening and referring patients with food insecurity to the local food bank, as this would allow providers to better serve their patients and food banks to serve additional clients. Differing measured outcomes across food bank/healthcare partnerships models also makes it challenging for evaluations across partnership types. A recent review found 23 published studies addressing food insecurity within the healthcare setting, yet few studies used the same methods or outcomes [ 22 ], making across study comparison difficult. Therefore, careful attention should be given to selecting meaningful measures that are relevant to both partners.

Another challenge in food bank/healthcare partnerships are expectations around food consistency and variety. This discrepancy centers on the inability of food banks to ensure consistent food products or produce at any given time of the year. While food banks have high purchasing power, their ability to purchase foods largely depends on funding and the ability to safely pack, transport, and store foods [ 23 ]. As noted by results, healthcare systems may have unrealistic expectations of what food banks are able to deliver. When expectations do not align with the availability of food products, it may be difficult for both charitable food systems and healthcare systems to continue to engage in a meaningful way.

In addition to partnership and program implementation obstacles, there will also likely be structural challenges such as food safety, federal regulations among food programs, and patient privacy. Food safety should be at the heart of any partnership that is planning for onsite food distribution, as there must be adequate dry and cold food storage in areas that meet food safety standards. The need for food safety and appropriate storage is echoed in a recent publication outlining the feasibility of healthy food pantries [ 24 ]. This structural challenge should not be discounted, as participants noted this can be a challenge for healthcare partners that want clinic-based food pantries. The complexities of federal regulations that specify how food bank purchased foods are used should also not be discounted, as this will often determine what food is available within a partnership. While challenging to navigate, this source of purchasing power should not be discounted, as it makes up a significant portion of a food banks funding. Lastly, results are consistent with previous work [ 25 ] suggesting that careful attention should be given to how to ensure patient privacy, while also allowing data sharing between partners.

Facilitators of food bank/healthcare partnerships documented in this study including leadership support, food insecurity training, and program champions are comparable to previous research findings among healthy food pantries [ 24 ]. With a focus on leadership support and program champions, results of this study also suggest that organizational readiness among food banks is important. Specific to these food bank/healthcare partnerships, attention should be given to the beliefs and attitudes of staff at food banks around their role to support health, not just hunger, as this may play a role in the relationship formation with healthcare. While food banks are moving to a nutrition focused mission, historically food banks were established to provide emergency food, with little attention to food quality. This transition from focusing to calories from food to focusing on nutrition from food is highlighted by the recent release of the first ever Nutrition Guidelines for the Charitable Food System [ 26 ].

Another study finding worth highlighting was focus on social determinants of health among food banks. Focusing on social determinants of health among food banks has increased in the past few decades given the vast research base linking food insecurity and other social determinants of health [ 27 ]. While the idea of charitable food systems functioning as a public health entity is a relatively novel idea, results of this study suggest it is top of mind for many food banks. This is evidenced by food banks emphasizing their role as partners in health promotion [ 25 ] and recent attention on incorporating social services teams into food banks [ 28 ]. Results also indicate that some food banks are actively participating in local health coalitions, suggesting they are interested in connecting resources and broadening their support of health within the community. Given that food banks are already creating spaces for social service discussions within their scope of work, it may be reasonable to build upon this foundation to further support public health priorities through charitable food systems, such as the vast network of food banks and pantries throughout the country.

While this study provides a unique perspective on partnerships between charitable food systems and healthcare, study limitations exist. This study was competed with a limited sample that largely represented a single state, yet many implementation barriers and facilitators should be similar regardless of where this partnership is taking place. This study was also completed as a pilot study with interview goals of exploring implementation barriers and facilitators, so structured questions were not asked of each participant nor were interviews recorded. Instead, interviews differed based on the participants experience and expertise and notes were taken. This method was chosen to provide the most comfort and privacy of participants while discussing barriers and allowing interviewer flexibility to explore new ideas, implementation barriers, and facilitators discussed by participants. To provide a more comprehensive understanding of food bank/healthcare partnerships, future research should consider a more systematic approach to understanding food bank/healthcare partnership models, logistics, and goals, as well as include perspectives from both food banks and healthcare partners.

Ultimately, interviews with food bank experts suggest careful planning and implementation of food bank/healthcare partnerships can be formed to support the physical and social needs of individuals and families experiencing food insecurity. Attention should be given to implementation challenges both within the partnership and program, as well as structural challenges working across systems. To continue moving this work forward, a convening of leaders within charitable food systems and healthcare systems is needed to provide direction for partnerships, improve future collaborations, and create a more equitable implementation framework.

Acknowledgements

No additional acknowledgements are reported.

Abbreviations

Authors’ contributions.

NP completed and supervised interviews and drafted the manuscript. EN critically revised manuscript. MO supported early project development and critically reviewed the manuscript. DM provided project oversight and revision of the manuscript. All authors participated in thematic analysis of interview data.

This project was funded by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services through the Texas Safe Babies project (IAC 24307170). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services.

Availability of data and materials

Declarations.

After reviewing the Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines on human subject research, this study was determined to be nonhuman subjects research according to HHS guidelines; therefore, the Institutional Review Board was not needed.

Not applicable.

The authors declare they have no competing interests.

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Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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  • - Despite the ongoing logistical bottlenecks reported by Cecafé in its latest report, Brazil exported 4.3m bags (60kg) of coffee in March 2024, a 38% rise versus the previous year. In Q1 2024, 12m bags were shipped, representing a 42% YOY increase. If the logistical situation does not worsen, export volumes should remain strong due to the good 2023 harvest and the start of the 2024 crop season.
  • - Brazilian conilon exports had an excellent performance in Q1 2024, reaching 1.9m bags – a remarkable 592% YOY increase. Constraints in the global supply of robusta, tensions in the Red Sea region, and Brazilian conilon’s improved competitiveness compared to other origins were the main drivers.
  • - On the arabica side, exports grew 28% YOY in Q1 2024, reaching 9.2m bags.
  • - Amid the significant rise in coffee prices and a slight decline in fertilizer costs, the barter ratio has markedly improved in April. Currently, it takes 1.9 coffee bags (60kg) to purchase 1 metric ton of fertilizer (blend 20-05-20). Notably, this represents the most favorable barter ratio observed in the past seven years and indicates a 14% YOY decrease, when 2.2 coffee bags were required.
  • - Between January and March 2024, local arabica and conilon coffee prices appreciated by 2.4% and 11.2%, respectively. Influenced by global prices, especially in the robusta coffee market, local prices have recently experienced significant appreciation. As of April, arabica coffee prices have increased 12.8% in 2024, while Brazilian conilon has surged by 26.8%, reaching record levels above BRL 1,000 per bag.
  • - With the narrowing price gap between arabica and conilon and considering the increased supply of arabica coffee (considering the 2024/25 harvest), we expect local roasters to reduce their use of conilon in domestic blends.
  • - In March, rainfall volumes were above average in all coffee-producing regions, except for two areas (Três Pontas/MG and Brejetuba/ES). Rainfall should improve the final cherry-filling phase. Despite some regions experiencing below-average accumulated rainfall, Rabobank forecasts the 2024/25 harvest at 69.8m bags (60kg), a 5.7% YOY increase. The arabica harvest is expected to grow 8.8%, while conilon will remain stable. Except for the Cerrado Mineiro (which is expected to drop 23.5% YOY), other regions show good conditions. For more information, read our latest Brazil agribusiness quarterly Q1 2024 .

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