The Wal-Mart of Food Banks

How Michael Mulqueen is using smart logistics to deliver 42 million pounds of food to Chicago's inner-city poor.

It's a typical Monday at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Chicago Bears football players are suiting up to pack lasagna and bread. Volunteers from Olathe, Kansas, scoop macaroni in a makeshift pasta factory. Paid employees sort damaged bags of Starbucks coffee and Capri Sun juice packets cast off by supermarkets.

Despite the busy pace, the sprawling warehouse seems almost serene. In order to get food to 300,000 poor Chicagoans by way of 600 social-service agencies, depository workers operate with a no-nonsense precision imposed by former Marine Brigadier General Michael P. Mulqueen, who has made it his mission to attack Chicago's hunger problem with logistical genius.

In 1991, Mulqueen arrived as executive director at the not-for-profit food bank after three decades in the military. At the time, he says, "the place had no business practices, no leadership. But it didn't seem to matter because people were just thankful to get food."

Mulqueen believed that in order for hunger to be seriously addressed, his operation had to offer great service and accountability. So Mulqueen radically reengineered the depository from a chaotic clearinghouse into a state-of-the-art food warehouse. His model: retail giant Wal-Mart stores.

He started with the depository's food supply. Traditionally, a food bank's shelves are filled haphazardly with whatever goods companies overproduce. Instead, Mulqueen forged strategic alliances with companies to provide a steady supply of needed staples. Chicago-based Golden Grain Macaroni Co. now sells its pasta in bulk cardboard tubs to the depository, at a steep discount. Golden Grain still gets a tax write-off, and it doesn't have to pack the pasta itself.

Next stop, the warehouse. On one typical day, the depository receives 3,162 pounds of dairy products, 53,763 pounds of fruits and vegetables -- canned and fresh -- and 18,322 pounds of meat, including 600 rotisserie chickens from supermarket delis. All of that food must be sorted into boxes or arranged into meals, so that shelters, soup kitchens, and pantries can easily hand them out.

That's where Mulqueen's production lines come in. The food packed by the Chicago Bears comes from precisely organized rows of crated food, stacked floor to ceiling. Those crates, along with goods otherwise destined for Dumpsters, are stacked onto huge skids for pickup by local agencies. Fresh fruit and vegetables are loaded onto ProduceMobiles -- roving farmer's markets that tour the city's shelters and housing projects. The chickens end up at soup kitchens or after-school dinner programs.

Now Mulqueen is targeting the last link in his food chain: the people who actually hand out the goods. Modeled after benchmarking corporate universities, including Harley-Davidson's, the depository has created Pantry University to help agencies get better use out of existing courses on grant-writing, cooking classes, fund-raising, and food-safety classes. Pantry University will get a permanent home in the depository's new warehouse opening next year. "Mike knows that he can do everything possible to make the depository efficient," says Gary Garland, executive director at Chicago's Lakeview Pantry and a depository board member. "But if the food gets dished out to substandard agencies it won't make a difference."

Plan B: Prison-grown produce

The Capital Area Food Bank in Austin, Texas, has created an unusual strategic alliance in order to bring more fresh produce to the city's impoverished neighborhoods. Women prisoners at the Hobby Unit, a medium-security prison north of Austin, grow fruits and vegetables for use at the prison. Any excess is loaded onto the food bank's 24-foot truck and distributed at 16 sites around the city. "Hundreds of people line up for hours" in anticipation of the deliveries, says Dan Pruett, the food bank's deputy executive director.

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