Until recently, if someone needed to visit Xavier Mission, a food pantry in New York City, that sometimes meant waiting outside for hours before the pantry opened. Now, a simple app called Plentiful–which works via text message, for those without a smartphone–lets people who need food make an Open Table-like reservation instead.
“If you think about the word ‘food pantry,’ the image that comes to mind is usually a group of people waiting in line out in the elements for food,” says Bob Shaver, associate principal at Redstone, a consultancy that works on social issues and helped establish the New York City Food Assistance Collaborative, a group of organizations and agencies that created the new app. “In today’s society, with the technology that we have and the resources that we have, the Collaborative thought that was just unacceptable and wanted to do something about that.”
The app, which works in multiple languages on either Android phones or any SMS-capable phone, makes appointments and sends reminders to clients to come to a food pantry at a specific time. The food pantry can also make appointments for clients. Those who don’t have a phone can still take a walk-in slot–but because the rest of the line has been eliminated, the wait for someone walking in is much shorter than it has been in the past.
For those who need food–many of whom have jobs, but struggle to afford groceries on their own–the new system gives them back valuable time. “In just about every pantry, there is a small group of people that show up before dawn and wait several hours before the first service actually happens,” Shaver says. “For those people, it’s the potential to save three or four hours per week or per visit.”
Others might come later in the day, but no longer have to worry about how long the line will be when they arrive (and whether food might run out before their turn comes). A third group of people may need food but be too embarrassed to wait in line outside a pantry; the app could help convince them to use the service.
Since the app launched in December 2016, 130 pantries in New York City have started using it. For the pantries, the app makes it easier to make the best use of donations. “Before, they just had paper sign-in sheets, but now they’re able to see roughly how many clients are coming any given day they’re open,” says Bryan Moran, who works with Plentiful. “They can space people out more accurately through the month so they’re not ending up with a ton of people at the beginning of the month and then having too much food at the end of the month.”
It’s particularly useful during the holidays, the busiest time of year at food pantries. At Thanksgiving, pantries that have limited storage space, and walk-in freezers stuffed with turkeys, can make appointments for people to pick up each bird.
A larger benefit of the app can come from the data it generates. The app collects only limited information, such as someone’s name, age, zip-code, and when they check in to pick up their food. But it’s enough for hunger organizations to begin to discover larger patterns and adjust systems to become more efficient. If a particular food pantry is drawing clients from all over the city, for example, the larger food banks the coordinate deliveries could choose to send more food there. The system can also identify how far people are traveling for food and whether some neighborhoods need new pantries. In a preliminary analysis, the Collaborative discovered that one segment of people was traveling from more than 40 minutes away to pick up food.
“That’s assuming that the subways are working and they’re not waiting on the platform, which is obviously not the case,” says Shaver. “So that’s probably a pretty conservative estimate.”
Over time, organizations can look at how demand changes year to year at Thanksgiving, for example. “Hunger advocates spend a lot of money and time trying to get access to that information, and it’s generally pretty shoddy,” he says. “Being able to say ‘Pantry A’ did 20% more service this Thanksgiving than last Thanksgiving, and across the network we saw a general uptick or downtick, that’s incredibly useful–for fundraising purposes, for making the case from a political standpoint, for pantry planning.”
The initial work with the app is funded by the Helmsley Charitable Trust, which is also funding the Collaborative’s larger effort. But the Collaborative now plans to expand the effort to other cities, and is developing a business model–perhaps partially paid for by large food banks–that could support the app into the future. The need, they say, is large. “There’s a huge network of charitable food providers out there that has operated the same way for 30 years, by and large,” Shaver says.