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US Food Bank's Digital Transformation Will Help It Feed More People

Last year, Greater Boston Food Bank embarked on the 1st phase of ‘Operation Everest’, a 3-year project to digitalize its entire operation. Here's how it works.

The Greater Boston Food Bank has embarked on a three-year, $5-million plan to transform itself into a unified, digital-first organization that emphasizes top-notch service.

Dubbed “Project Everest,” the initiative will seek to make the food bank’s technology operations more efficient, while creating better experiences for four key stakeholder groups: its 600 food-distribution partners; donors; employees, and especially the people in its service area who don’t have enough to eat.

“In the end, it’s all aligned with our strategic plan to close the meal gap and move people from being food-insecure to food-secure,” said Catherine D’Amato, CEO.

The initiative puts The Greater Boston Food Bank in position to meet the rapid rise in customer expectations driven by consumer-focused companies such as Amazon. Whether an organization is distributing food, consumer goods or digital products, customer expe­rience and human-centered design have become significant differentiators. McKinsey research shows that superior design is closely associated with superior performance.

Working in a people-centric way is especially impor­tant for organizations that interact with marginalized groups, such as food-insecure individuals, who frequently face stigmas that affect whether and how they seek resources. Providing a positive, convenient customer experience makes it likelier that food-insecure individuals will seek out the support they need.

The Greater Boston Food Bank is not a newcomer to advanced technology. Four years ago, it implemented an e-commerce platform from NetSuite so that it could take food orders from its food-distribution partners. It also upgraded to a Salesforce customer-relationship-management system to manage interactions with donors and volunteers, and allow food pantries to schedule deliveries. In addition, most of its office staff, about 100 people, had been outfitted with laptops.

But the pandemic – during which the food bank estimates it distributed 56% more food than the year before – exposed deficiencies. The food bank had added applications for single departments or isolated processes without considering how everything should work together. Other applications had been adopted because they were readily available, economical, or just because somebody wanted them.

As a result, some departments “had all the bells and whistles,” but others still relied on manual processes, D’Amato said. “There wasn’t a cross-business knowledge base. Departments were very isolated.”

The food bank also realized that some inconsistencies were making it challenging to serve its ultimate customer – people in need. Surveys showed that people sometimes missed getting food because they didn’t know the right location to visit or when it was open. They also couldn’t always get the type of food they wanted or speak English well enough to communicate with food-distribution personnel. Some were afraid to share the personal information that a distributor required. Food-distribution partners had issues too, including the need to send data about food recipients to the food bank without knowing how that information would be used or what benefits to expect in return.

The Greater Boston Food Bank partnered with McKinsey to review the organization’s existing technology setup and to create a digital strategic plan. Surveying food-distribution partners and people with food insecurities was part of that process. So was interviewing food-bank personnel in operations, IT, and other departments. Staff identified internal pain points that could be ameliorated through the adoption of digital to create more efficient processes that ultimately could advance the Project Everest mission of delivering more food aid to people who need it.

The digital transformation team categorized issues according to which aspects of the organization they affected, such as service quality, cost, and risk. The team brainstormed options for making improve­ments, including where the food bank had existing capabilities that could be enhanced and where it might need to build solutions from scratch. From there, it identified short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, and did a cost-benefit analysis to determine which projects to work on first.

In addition to operating more efficiently, potential goals for the digital transformation include the following:

  • Make it easier for people to get food aid, and information about it, through innovations such as a statewide information hub and a shopping app. As part of this effort, the food bank hopes to incorporate more of food-aid recipients’ needs and perspectives into customer interactions.

  • Improve communications with food-distribution partners, including processes for placing orders that incorporate live, online help and check-in tools for pantries to collect pertinent information from food recipients.

  • Create a communications channel for distribution partners that shares resources customized to their needs and fosters better collaboration.

  • Improve management of stakeholder relation­ships and donation processes.

  • Use predictive analytics to improve the food bank’s product mix.

  • Use digital check-ins, scheduling, and sequencing to make pickups at the warehouse faster and simpler.

  • Create an end-to-end digital experience for donations.

  • Reduce repetitive work and daily tasks for employees.

  • Reduce total cost of technology ownership.

  • Position GBFB to respond to rapid increases in need.

  • Improve data governance to help the food bank achieve its mission more efficiently.

  • Consider an “innovation lab” once the digital transformation is complete.

To oversee the digital-transformation effort, the organization created a position for Vice President of Digital Strategy and hired Unmesh Gandhi, a software architect turned management adviser with experience in corporate strategy and digital transformation. “The ultimate goal is to make quick decisions and lower costs and risks,” Gandhi said. “Another goal is to deliver continuous improvement,” so systems can evolve as needs change, he said.

The price tag of the food bank’s digital transfor­mation might sound daunting – $5 million represents a two- to three-fold increase over what the food bank would normally spend on resources, technology, and engineering in a three-year period.

But many of the changes aren’t difficult; they are simply steps that the food bank hasn’t taken before and that require working in new ways, D’Amato said. For that reason, a major portion of the transformation will be helping staff assimilate the changes. “Our biggest issue will be the cultural shift and the impact on the team to do things differently,” she said.

The digital-transformation project will also reduce the food bank’s carbon footprint through improved energy use and digital monitoring and automation, among other things. Toward that end, the food bank has optimized truck routes to conserve fuel and maintains Silver LEED certification for its warehouse.

The Greater Boston Food Bank is still in an early phase of implementing the plan. So far, the organization is weighing McKinsey’s recommendations, looking at findings from the project’s initial discovery and assessment phase, and considering additional technology and integration suggestions from Slalom Consulting. As it launches new initiatives, food bank leaders say they will depend on data to track the measurable effects of changes while staying open to innovation and experimentation.

“We have a high affinity for creativity,” D’Amato said. “We’re willing to try new things.” – Tamara Baer, Shreya Gupta, John Henry Ronan Jr., and Hyo Yeon


Tamara Baer and John Henry Ronan Jr. are consultants in McKinsey’s Boston office where Baer also serves on Greater Boston Food Bank’s board; Shreya Gupta is a consultant in the Seattle office, and Hyo Yeon is a partner in the New York office.

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