Food Banks Raise Interest in Voice to Keep Costs Low

Aug. 1, 2010
Consortium uses voice picking software to increase productivity 20% and make better use of labor in receiving, selecting and shipping for their clients.

Hunger? Here in the USA? Many are not surprised that some hunger exists in this land of plenty — but most are shocked to learn that one out of six Americans does not have enough to eat. Hunger is not confined to certain neighborhoods, education levels, or the homeless, but increasingly afflicts college-educated people and those with good jobs who just don't make enough to afford adequate food for their families.

“Food Banks are one of the few industries where you hope that the need for your services goes down each year,” says Bill McKnight, operations director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, as deteriorating economic conditions have left more people needing assistance.

Getting food to those who need it is all about logistics, and each food bank strives to keep costs under control so that as much money as possible can go toward accomplishing the mission. Some food banks, such as the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Harvesters food bank in Kansas City, have implemented voice picking software from Voxware to gain efficiencies and stretch their donated dollars further than before.

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Harvesters are two of some 200 food banks that make up Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity, which serves more than 37 million people in all 50 states. McKnight in Oklahoma and Norm Bowers of Harvesters founded the Operations Technology Consortium — a task force operating within the Feeding America network that focuses on information sharing and ways to leverage technology to streamline operations. The potential value of voice picking software appeared on their radar, and they took a deeper look.

“A food bank is not too different from a broadline foodservice company,” says McKnight. “We have warehouses with products, trucks to load and remote delivery locations that need accurate shipments on time and within budget. We've looked at advanced technologies that foodservice companies use, and with voice picking we found one that we can take advantage of in a cost effective way — and we're getting good results from it.”

Finding Voice

“Like a lot of companies, we were using paper pick lists,” says Bowers. “After implementing the Voxware system, we got a 10% increase in productivity, which has now grown to about 20% as our workforce has become accustomed to working hands-free. We are a food warehouse, and we are AIB compliant, which means that we spend a lot of time maintaining stringent cleanliness and sanitation standards, so the productivity gains from the voice system have freed up time that enables order selectors to assist with these tasks, which means we've avoided hiring additional staff.”

Both food banks had fast voice implementations. Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma went into production with voice after just 11 weeks, and Harvesters implemented even faster — after having learned from Oklahoma's experience. “There is a lot of mutual help in our network,” says McKnight. “Many of us use the same WMS and have a similar technology stack, and we are committed to sharing best practice information, so what one of us learns can help another to save even more time and cost, which translates into an ability to feed more people.”

Dealing with Hunger's Demand

Food banks nationwide have had to contend with an increase in demand for their services, particularly as economic conditions have worsened. For example, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma has seen a cumulative increase of 60% in its food shipments over the past three years. Today both food banks ship around 700,000 pounds each week. Both organizations were concerned about how voice technology would enable them to support the growth of their operations.

“The last thing we wanted was a fixed solution that could not be modified, so we definitely were looking for productized software,” says McKnight. Therefore, the ability to configure the voice system was important — but also the ability to reconfigure it as operations evolve. “We've made numerous changes to the system since we went live,” says Bowers, “Traditionally you have to shell out a lot of money if you want to change an operational system, but we were very pleased to see that the changes could be made rapidly and at a very low cost. This is not only consistent with our mission of keeping costs low, but it doesn't restrict us from making operational improvements.”

Another benefit of voice technology is improved accuracy. Because workers must verify what they do at every step of the order fulfillment process, the system detects errors when it is easiest and cheapest to correct them — as they are being made.

“We do a lot of repackaging, and we have many volunteers — for whom we are very grateful — who help us with this process,” Bowers adds. “It's inevitable that mistakes will be made in labeling and other areas, which used to be time-consuming and expensive to correct before we put in voice. Now, the voice system helps us to discover these things very quickly. With voice, our whole material flow accuracy from receiving to selection to shipping has improved, and we're sending out highly accurate shipments to the facilities that need them.”

The food banks in Feeding America's network depend upon donated funds, and they take their stewardship of that money very seriously. One donated dollar can be turned into from seven to fourteen meals, if costs are kept under control. By implementing voice technology, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Harvesters have found a high-tech way to get more efficient and further support the cause of eliminating hunger in America.

Stephen Gerrard is vice president of marketing & strategic planning of Voxware, a supplier of software for voice-driven warehousing operations.

The Logistics of Foodbanking

The very nature of food banking demands ongoing attention to the challenges of logistics management. Depending on the “service area” of the food bank, these issues can vary significantly. Decisions regarding the processes for distribution of product will need to be based on answers to the following logistics questions:

  • Are the recipients (agencies or individuals) capable of picking up at the food bank?

  • Is the majority of the service area rural, thereby requiring that the food bank deliver to the agencies or to a central location for clusters of agencies?

  • What types and quantity of vehicles does the food bank have?

  • What types and size of facility(ies) does the food bank have?

  • What kind of staffing implications do the answers to these questions suggest?

  • Is it more efficient and effective to hire contracted drivers and vehicles to accomplish the food bank's distribution goals?

  • Is rail service an option?

  • For heavily populated urban areas are there restrictions as to the size and weights of delivery vehicles? Are special licenses or permits required?

The food bank may also need to answer more finite questions such as:

  • Is there a reliable source for cartons or bags the clients can carry their food in safely?

  • What transportation needs are there to help the clients get the food back to their home?

  • How much food should a person/family actually receive?

Source: This was excerpted from “How to Build a Foodbank, a Tooklkit for Establishing New Foodbanks,” from The Global FoodBanking Network, a private, non-profit international organization headquartered in Chicago, IL. For more information, visit

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