That capability is clear upon stepping inside. Pallets of food are stacked 35 feet into the air in the humming warehouse, positioned on massive orange racks marked with bar codes and multicolored letters. Every pallet, every item, every shelf position, every expiration date — they’re all tracked with a sophisticated warehouse-management system. Food bank officials like to say that everything on the shelves — from dry storage, to the 55- and 35-degree areas, to the zero-degree freezer — has a license plate. Every piece of food is accountable.
On October 1, the Greater Boston Food Bank went a step further, unveiling software that allows food pantries and other agencies to see real-time inventory information when placing orders. Each agency logs on to the food bank’s website, selects a pickup day and a truck bay, and begins to fill a virtual cart. If the last box of fingerling potatoes was ordered by another agency 20 minutes earlier, it is no longer on the menu. Previously, the staff updated the inventory every morning, but the accuracy of that snapshot diminished as the day went on.
The new system allows the food bank to tailor online ordering to each agency. Food pantries without freezers, for example, don’t see frozen food as an option. The food bank acquires some items using state emergency food-relief funding, and only eligible agencies have access to them on the site. If a pantry selects a pickup day that’s two weeks away, anything with an expiration date before then doesn’t show up. The software also maintains the agencies’ order histories, so they can track what they’ve selected over time, and lists a nutritional value for every morsel in the warehouse.
When orders come in, they are transmitted wirelessly to Motorola hand-held scanners, which are connected to the warehouse-management system. Food bank workers use them to fill orders and register what they’re taking from the shelves by shooting a laser beam at the bar codes. Using pallet jacks and special forklifts that can stretch to the ceiling, they arrange orders at the truck bays and then help load them onto delivery trucks for distribution.
Elisa Shannon, vice president of acquisition at the Greater Boston Food Bank, says she loves bringing food industry executives in for a tour, because many are surprised at how advanced the operations are — how much the warehouse resembles their own. The conversations, Shannon says, often go something like this:
“All of a sudden they say, ‘Wow, you can take frozen food?’ ”
“You can take perishable food?”
“Wow, I had no idea. You can take raw food?”
This increased capability has brought other benefits, including more consistent food supplies for agencies and their clients, and tighter safety controls, which are especially useful in the event of product recalls, when the food bank might need to immediately track down every suspect jar of peanut butter. Perhaps most important, the innovations are helping the food bank meet one of its biggest challenges: the increasing demand from agencies and consumers for produce.
In the fiscal year that just ended, 10 million of the 40.8 million pounds of food the food bank distributed was produce, the highest share ever. “Twenty years ago? Couldn’t move a carrot,” D’Amato says. Acquiring, storing, and shipping apples, lettuce, and tomatoes is, of course, more complicated than handing out canned goods. Efficiency, timing, proper refrigeration, and a nimble transport system all become more critical.
Which brings us back to the Hubbard squash. This year, for the first time, the Greater Boston Food Bank began purchasing Hubbards from Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, thanks to a state initiative designed to link food agencies with local growers. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, September 24, a big cardboard container of Hubbards came in, got its license plate, and was put into 55-degree storage. Three days later, early on Thursday the 27th, they were moved into the food bank’s marketplace, ready for the taking.
WE HOP IN Jim Ward’s mud-splattered 4x4 and head into the fields, past the sheep, past rows of radiant orange pumpkins, past a tall grass maze called “Sorghum City,” reaching a road beyond the crops. We cross it and continue down a muddy lane on the other side, stopping beside a 48-by-800-foot patch overrun with redroot pigweed, which is nearly as tall as we are.
Here, between rows of Flat White Boer pumpkins and Georgia Candy Roaster squash, is what we came to see: scores of Hubbards lying on their sides like something from Dr. Seuss’s imagination that has fallen from the sky. They may not be the prettiest cucurbit, but theirs is a warm heart.Continued...