Search overlay

Search form




        Faculty, Harbert Magazine, Research

        Food Banks Face Different Supply Chain Challenges

        January 17, 2024 By Harbert Magazine

        All News


        LaDonna Thornton
        LaDonna Thornton
        Assistant Professor
        Department of Supply Chain Management

        Foodbank supply chain is different from other businesses

        Think supply chain issues and you’ll likely think of their impact on private-sector businesses struggling to make a profit in uncertain times, not to mention their impact on you when items once easily obtained become harder to get. But these issues also have broad impact outside the for-profit world, notably in agencies such as food banks, which drew the attention of Harbert’s LaDonna Thornton and fellow researchers.

        Thornton, assistant professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management, noted that food banks face supply chain issues that differ from those faced by for-profit businesses. For example, they may have particular problems managing their supply chain mix, in part because much of what food banks receive is contributed, not purchased.

        “Donations are a primary source for them, but they don’t know what they might get,” Thornton said. “They don’t know what they’re getting, so planning can be a problem. The supply chain mix is challenging because they often can’t control the mix.”

        Thornton and her colleagues studied food banks of varying sizes in several states in an effort to determine “what good performance and service looks like” in these operations, given their differences from for-profit businesses.

        “The bottom line is to distribute food, but some food banks began to ask if that was enough,” Thornton said. They stepped up their basic levels of service to include programs aimed at easing food insecurity. Thus, any measure of performance and service should include efforts to address the root causes of food insecurity and help people find ways to overcome them.

        But there are measurements similar to those used in for-profit companies. Timeliness, service quality, service access, merchandise condition and having knowledgeable and empathetic employees all apply to food banks as well. Some food banks even began treating food as medicine in hopes of helping curb chronic diseases linked to diet, such as diabetes, by providing packages of healthier food. “It’s hard for food-insecure people to eat healthy,” Thornton said. “Eating healthy is expensive.”

        Research that explores such challenges can help individual and corporate contributors more effectively gauge the impact of food banks and how their donations address these issues. It’s a different twist on the usual business model.

        “Unlike a for-profit business," Thornton said, “You don’t want repeat customers at a food bank.”