Faculty Research Spotlight
“Our research findings and models are expected to improve future relief efforts that will provide meals, snacks, hydration, hygiene, and more to all evacuees in local shelters.”
Food Banks are Crucial
Food banks are a critical support network for populations at risk for hunger and malnutrition. Their operations include wholesaling surplus food from stores and farms, procuring and warehousing bulk donations, and distributing food and household goods to a variety of charitable agencies. Most large urban food banks provide meals for hundreds of thousands of people each week. In addition to their normal operations, many food banks serve as disaster-relief agencies by providing food and supplies to displaced residents. When a large food bank is itself seriously impacted by a large-scale disaster, deliveries to the food bank and food distribution to relief organizations must be rerouted to neighboring food banks capable of serving the affected population.
When Hurricane Harvey disabled the Houston Food Bank, the largest Feeding America food bank in the U.S., the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin and the San Antonio Food Bank operated well past full capacity under challenging circumstances to take up the slack. These food banks currently operate as an informal network with no specific mechanisms or practices in place to guide a regional response to a disaster of this magnitude.
The goal of my project is to advance the operational capabilities of food banks when their service region has the potential to be or is affected by natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this project is titled “Identification and Analysis of Key Dynamics Required for Sustainable Operations of Texas Food Banks after Hurricane Disasters.”
Team Effort Makes a Difference
Along with my team of graduate and undergraduate students, we have collected and analyzed data on surge capacity, transient operating conditions, and performance at these neighboring food banks as they worked to support residents of southeastern Texas affected by the hurricane. The team has successfully characterized key logistic obstacles and bottlenecks when a major food bank is disrupted; identified staff capacity and limitations (including both paid and volunteer staff) at neighboring food banks; determined first aid products needed by displaced individuals; and identified what partnerships/agreements (both formal and informal) between food banks are needed during these operations.
Our research findings and models are expected to improve future relief efforts that will provide meals, snacks, hydration, hygiene, and more to all evacuees in local shelters. In addition, our findings will help plan for emergency food boxes inventory that must be ready at food banks before any natural disaster. Finally, our models will serve as decision-making tools to deploy truckloads of resources beyond normal service areas to deliver food, water, cleaning supplies, and other essentials to coastal communities.
On a larger scale, the results of this project will enable study of how regional coordination among food banks can be optimized to deliver needed food and basic necessities to communities affected by large scale disasters that disrupt a critical element of the recovery effort.