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Behind The Scenes Of New York’s Massive Thanksgiving Meals Operation

The nation’s largest food bank is putting out more food with fewer resources as the city faces growing hunger.

20,677 turkeys is a lot of turkeys. That’s how many have come and gone this holiday season from the freezer room inside the warehouse of the Food Bank for New York City, a cavernous space that spans an area the size of two football fields tucked away in Hunts Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the whole city.

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As the largest food bank in the country, the Food Bank for New York City does everything big: In the last year alone, it’s distributed food for more than 63 million meals, enough to feed dinner to some 750 sold-out Giants stadiums. Thanksgiving is no exception.

Yet on the Friday just before the big day–the time of year we are most likely to spare a thought to those at risk of going hungry, all is surprisingly relaxed. Warehouse workers are calmly unloading trucks, scanning inventory, and stocking orders. The day’s volunteer shift, a young team in blue T-shirts happily taking a break from the daily grind at JP Morgan Chase, are in the clean room sorting through donations of packed poultry. The freezer room? It has maybe a few dozen turkeys left. The rest, already purchased and stocked in July and August when turkey prices are low, had long ago been delivered to the Food Bank’s 1,000 member soup kitchens, food pantries, and other charities all over the city.

A few lone turkeys left behind.

“We have to stay ahead. If we start becoming crazy, then that means we’ve messed up the entire city-wide network. We’ve got to be in Thanksgiving mode in October,” says Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of the organization.

So Thanksgiving week is just another week at the warehouse. That is to say, at a time when 1 in 5 New Yorkers relies on a food pantry or soup kitchen to eat, and in a year when cuts to federal food stamp benefits have increased demand at nearly 80% of New York City pantries and kitchens compared to 2013, it is not a small week at all.

Running A Food Bank Like A Business, Not A Charity

The 31-year-old organization has actually had a record year, distributing 76 million pounds of food, well past its annual goal. But though it gives out the most food of any food bank in the nation, it’s not the largest by physical size. Like most New Yorkers, the warehouse staff uses smart planning to do more with less space.

Some of that is a credit to Purvis, a charismatic leader who came to the organization in 2011 after working in the nonprofit sector for years and overseeing large-scale Hurricane Katrina response initiatives at the Points Of Light Foundation. She has the kind of high-energy, no-nonsense personality one imagines would be at ease with a corporate CEO, a celebrity chef, and a homeless man alike. Like any new boss, she didn’t want to take her fresh eyes for granted and asked staff what the Food Bank should be improving.

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One warehouse employee, Daryl Gardner, who had worked previously for a major wholesale food distributor, observed that the warehouse was being run like a charity, not a business. “I said: ‘Really? Give me three examples,’” she remembers. “He gave me eight.”

A wrist-mounted scanner used on the warehouse floor.

Today, Gardner is the Food Bank’s Bronx food distribution director, and Purvis also brought in others with food distribution and supermarket industry experience. As a team, they have remade how they run the operation. Once, they had a nutritionist ordering everything under the sun. Today, while nutrition is still of great importance, now they analyze their inventory closely to stock in-demand items that won’t simply take up space on a shelf (the facility only tosses less than 1% of its food because it expired). In doing so, she says, the organization freed up $3 million dollars of its budget. Engineers from Toyota even visited the Food Bank’s Harlem soup kitchen and Staten Island food pantry, which act a bit like the nonprofit’s customer testing lab, to implement the ethic of “kaizen”–a Japanese recipe for efficiency or “continuous improvement.” In one warehouse, Toyota’s principles helped volunteers cut the time for packing a box from three minutes to just 11 seconds.

“It was always an efficient place…-ish,” says Purvis. “It’s like night and day now.”

These days, everything at the Bronx warehouse starts when a member–a charity, soup kitchen, or food pantry–fills up an online shopping cart and places an order on a Fresh Direct-like website where stock is updated in real time. Members are shown items customized to their budget and needs (such as kosher restrictions, or the fact that they’re working under a particular government program), but fresh produce is always “free,” courtesy of grants and donations raised by the Food Bank. In the warehouse office, customer service staff on headsets are confirming delivery times, so the trucks can run on a seamless schedule.

Food Bank President and CEO Margarette Purvis

Down on the warehouse floor, workers don a “shopping list on their wrist,” a cyborg-like scanning device with a screen that allows them to efficiently pick orders, so as not to waste time fiddling with the handheld that would have once been strapped on their belt. Instant mashed potatoes, canned peaches, and tomatoes come first. Fresh produce of the day–carrots and greens, today–come after, loaded at the top. The system updates inventory and tracks who has last touched each order, so there’s accountability for mistakes. Gardner says these is rare, because employees tend to be motivated, or as he puts it: “Making a difference makes a difference for them.”

The re-packing room is one of the most important in the facility, and it’s where the volunteers congregate. While the Food Bank buys some of its food and gets corporate donations, such as Fresh Direct customer orders that never get picked up, it also collects food donations from anywhere it can. But the expiration dates have to be checked and the food has to often be repackaged and boxed–and this has to be done in a regulated, clean environment. This work is hard to make super-efficient, and it’s why volunteer labor–about 800 volunteers a week at full capacity– is necessary to make it feasible.

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How to End Hunger: Bring In The Data

Purvis is proud that the Food Bank is moving the largest amount of food it’s ever moved, with fewer staff and less money. Yet the size of its operation is something the nonprofit no longer tries to put front and center.

“Everybody counted our success by how much food went out. The biggest change we made is: We don’t care anymore,” she says. “We’re going to now look at the ‘meal gap.’ We want to know how many meals are missing. It’s all about where the food is not, and where the greatest need is.”

Trucks leave at 5 a.m. every weekday to make deliveries.

The organization isn’t just solving this by just collecting more food. It’s offering a range of services to help end hunger in other ways, as well. It’s created a system so charities can sign people up for food stamps online, right at their sites, instead of having people go to a city office. It’s the second-largest provider of free tax return services in the nation, just behind the U.S. military; last year it secured $88 million in refunds and tax credits to low-income New Yorkers. Its latest effort is commandeering three RVs donated by the American Red Cross to provide services to the city’s neediest neighborhoods, where there aren’t even any food pantries or soup kitchens, let alone sprawling supermarkets packed with healthy produce.

The Food Bank’s long-term goal is now to close this meal gap, a real and quantifiable baseline from which to measure. Before food stamps were cut, it measured the meal gap–the meals New Yorkers missed that year because of lack of resources–at 100 million meals (a gap that would have been much higher without the Food Bank’s efforts). In a report released this week, it estimates the “hunger cliff” cuts last year meant another 56 million missed meals that year.

Meal gap map. Click to enlarge.FoodBankNYC.org

Maps and data also help them call out politicians who need to do more to serve their communities. “The meal gap doesn’t go away because suddenly a community got rich. The meal gap goes away because my partners in the community are there. Because they’re awesome. They’re working together. They’re handling it. Because trust me, nobody is hitting the lottery.”

Purvis, in fact, hates when people talk fast and loose about how they’re going to “end hunger.” She repeats the phrase once for good measure, in a mocking, sing-songy voice.

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“I ask: How? When? Where? If you can’t answer those, then you didn’t have a plan to do it. You just said it cause it sounds nice.” (Purvis has a talent of sounding enthusiastic, tired, and exasperated all at once.)

“I don’t want to do it anymore. There are real people in these places waiting for you to finally end hunger. So we want there to be something that says, X marks the spot. Put up or shut up. What you gonna do? Cause I’m going to do the tax returns. We’ll do another $20 million of food stamps. We’re going to put $20 million of meals there.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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