Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the need for food assistance in the United States has increased 60 percent while a third of the nation’s food banks have closed their doors.
Even as demand has soared at food banks, farmers have struggled to sell their produce as the restaurant industry took a tremendous hit. With surpluses on one side and scarcity on the other, the nation is facing a growing food gap that is hurting both farmers and those in need.
The problem inspired a unique partnership between the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, the University of Wisconsin, and Arizona State University, with input from corporate partners Google and Ryder. Funded by a private grant, the Food Supply Chain Coalition is a nationwide effort to fight hunger by optimizing supply chains.
Second-year students in UT’s Tri-Continent Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program participated in the project, each tackling a specific piece in a many-sided puzzle with the overarching goal of solving real-world problems in the food supply chain.
Madison Rinio, of Cookeville, Tennessee, worked with the Society of St. Andrew, a national gleaning organization, on one facet of the project through the location and gathering of food that might otherwise be wasted.
“I’ve gotten to see every side of the gleaning experience, from farming to collecting excess fresh food from different agencies,” said Rinio. Her hands-on work in the organization’s local garden has given her insight into the challenges of farming. “As a businessperson, it’s easy to sit back and say the supply chain should be efficient, but I’ve been able to see that the growing process can’t be rushed.”
She also helped the organization standardize its partnerships and streamline the flow of donations. “It’s been interesting to see the hoops they have to jump through to get food where it needs to go,” she said. Rinio calls this—one of the most difficult parts of the process—the right thing to do for communities and the environment.
Connecting Excess With Need
Connecting food banks with food to stock their shelves is another important element of the project. Several students worked to develop an e-commerce platform, FoodSource USA, to link food producers with a surplus and food banks that want to purchase those goods at a reduced cost.
Spencer Pennisi, of Brentwood, Tennessee, analyzed the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s meat processing practices with a goal of adding stability to poultry production and distribution in the supply chain. “I started by looking at the constraints for the industry and how processes could be optimized,” he said. “The goal is to ensure there’s enough meat for everyone in need.”
Tackling a food supply chain management problem on campus, Ryan Lile, of Modesto, California, worked on a recovery program to direct food that would otherwise be wasted to UT’s Culinary Institute. “This will help the institute and feed fellow students who are struggling with hunger,” Lile said. “I’m working on a feasibility study to get the program approved.”
Several students worked to improve processes for Second Harvest Food Banks in the region. Some identified the best locations for distribution centers, taking fuel consumption costs into account. Others tackled transportation, determining ideal routes for deliveries and looking at the pros and cons of purchasing vehicles versus leasing them. A third team reviewed warehouse operations and came up with new strategies to streamline tasks.
The students and faculty involved found the project—which may continue to be refined and implemented with additional funding—personally satisfying. “There has never been more need for supply chain expertise in humanitarian settings,” said Mary Long, director of the Haslam College of Business’s Supply Chain Forum and leader of the project. “Students who get a taste of this work understand how rewarding and purposeful it can be.”
“I’m so proud of this class,” adds Andrea Sordi, clinical professor of supply chain management. “They have truly embodied the Volunteer spirit.”
Tanya Brown (865-974-1570, firstname.lastname@example.org)