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Solving a food bank's dilemma

The Second Harvest Food Bank in Allentown is serving 33 percent more people now than a year ago.

Every month, the Second Harvest Food Bank helps feed upwards of 60,000 people across the Lehigh Valley—to families straddling the lines of poverty who must rely on emergency food assistance programs for nourishment.

The charitable effort has taken on a higher profile during the current economic recession. In food pantries in Allentown and the valley’s other urban centers, for instance, the number of people seeking assistance has grown by a third in less than a year.

This growing demand is causing growing pains for Second Harvest Food Bank, a division of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. All told, the bank distributes nearly half a million pounds of food to more than 200 service agencies in the greater Lehigh Valley, an area of six counties in eastern Pennsylvania.

Second Harvest’s distribution center is already at capacity, says director Ann McManus. And because resources and revenue for the nonprofit organization are stretched thin, the food bank must make a critical decision: should it expand its current distribution center or build a new warehouse offsite?

The dilemma has made for an interesting case study for six teams of supply chain management majors in Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics, who are working with McManus to determine the best practical solution for the food bank.

“It’s a good case study for students because they’re getting exposure to basic—but very complicated—issues,” says Zach Zacharia, assistant professor of management. “They’re being forced to [tackle] problems in a real-life scenario for which there is no perfect solution.”
 
Beyond the comfort zone
 
Working with McManus, Zacharia has asked three teams to present options to expand the current distribution center by analyzing schematics and by studying the warehouse’s layout and its potential for sustained growth.

The other three teams are considering the benefits of moving operations into a completely new facility at a different location, a move that could create new logistical and financial hurdles.

In early December, each team will present its findings and recommendations to McManus much as real-world consultants would. McManus says she’s open to all suggestions, but is most interested in ideas that are both realistic and attainable.

Aside from top honors, there’s a secondary benefit for the seniors and juniors: an opportunity to work outside their comfort zones.

“Here at Lehigh, students don’t have to deal with issues that are driven by poverty,” says Zacharia. “Second Harvest makes a real difference in the lives of so many families in the region. I think it gives them an appreciation of the type of commitment that Ann McManus and her team of volunteers have to a cause that so often goes unnoticed.”

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2009

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