/Food for thought

Food for thought

OPINION – The inspiring story of lean applied to food distribution to the New York City poor prompts the author to share her thoughts on the bigger problem of hunger and on what lean people can do to help tackle it.

Words: Linda Van Driel, Business Manager, Lean Management Instituut


At the Lean Transformation Summit in Orlando last month I was blown away by a powerful presentation by Margarette Purvis, CEO of the Food Bank for New York City. With the help of Jamie Bonini of TSSC, she looked closely at how food is distributed to hungry New Yorkers.

Kaizen activities helped to solve a big problem, the lines building up in pantries and soup kitchens around the city. People had to wait for their food for hours outside, whether it was hot or cold, and where anyone could see them. So, one might be drawn to think: “No lines, no problem, right?” Wrong, as this would simply mean hiding the problem. It would mean tackling the symptom, not the actual cause of the problem.

What is the biggest issue a food bank faces, then? Let’s dive into the facts for a moment.

Food banks emerged in the United States in 1967 and the idea gradually made its way from Canada to Europe. France opened the first European food bank in 1984. Belgium followed in 1986. Meanwhile, food banks in 17 European countries have joined the European Federation of Food Banks.

Over the course of 2009, food banks also felt the effects of the economic crisis, as businesses started to sit on their stock for longer and only allowed their excess inventory to go to food banks just before the expiry date. This happened while the number of hungry families increased. Reality hit in 2013, with food shortages at the food banks, which led many of them to introduce waiting lists.

Essentially, as companies become more efficient in production, they generate less waste. The result for food banks is that getting food (that would otherwise go to waste) is becoming more challenging.

Paradoxically, only 0.3% of the amount of food wasted in the Netherlands reaches food banks (these are estimates by WUR and food banks Netherlands).

Aha! So our efforts as lean folks to eliminate waste in our companies are actually increasing the problem of food shortage for food banks. I wonder how many people at the Orlando summit made this connection. Probably not that many. The story was very moving and we all felt for the people in the pictures standing in line for a warm meal. I got teary-eyed and saw that many around me did too.

We need to force ourselves to take a step back and analyze the problem. What can we do at food banks to impact the bigger (economic) problem of hunger? What can we do to decrease the amount of time people spend in need of the food bank’s services? How can we create jobs through or at the food bank?

Because our lean efforts are partly responsible for the woos of food banks around the world, I am assigning all of you lean guys and gals some homework:

  1. Think about how the food bank could contribute to job creation;
  2. Think about possible countermeasures to decrease the time customers need the food bank;
  3. Email or call your local food bank and sign up as a volunteer, to give back what we may have unintentionally taken away;
  4. Support your local food bank with Kaizen activities, free of charge.

Now? Yes, right now.