Modeling for Philanthrop-IE

By Irem Sengul
ISE PhD Student

ISE students work with local food banks to get food where it’s needed most

The facts are staggering. One in four children in North Carolina will sleep hungry tonight. North Carolina has the fifth highest food insecurity rate in the United States. Food insecurity is the most broadly used measure of food deprivation in the United States. The USDA defines food insecurity as meaning “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

The problem of food insecurity is not only caused by the lack of food or social welfare, but also by the poor distribution of the food on hand; which leads to waste in some places and shortages in others. So this is where the team of ISE researchers got to work.

The ISE research team, Julie Ivy, professor; Reha Uzsoy, professor; Irem Sengul, a fourth year doctoral candidate; and Amber Williams, graduating senior; and students from North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&&T) are working with the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (FBCENC) to develop models for identifying fair but effective strategies for improving the distribution of donated food to North Carolina’s food insecure population. Industrial engineering and operations research tools were critical for achieving these goals.

Their challenge was to balance the conflicting objectives of equity and effectiveness so that the FBCENC could devise “fair” strategies for distributing food. The ISE researchers quickly discovered that counties referred to as “bottleneck counties” have relatively low capacities compared to their demands. Faced with the requirement to distribute food equitably, these counties severely limited FBCENC’s ability to distribute food.

The team determined that increasing capacity in these bottleneck counties would have the greatest impact by increasing the total amount of food that can be distributed, reducing waste while maintaining equity. Through their NSF funded research project, the ISE researchers have been able to work with FBCENC to examine and model their distribution strategies, better understand trends in donations, forecast demand, and identify ways to reach more people with hunger needs.

This project has allowed ISE students to apply their engineering skills to improve the condition of many of those in North Carolina with the greatest need. In the process, they have been recognized nationally for their efforts: Irem Sengul was awarded first place in the 2012 INFORMS Interactive Presentation Competition and third place in the 2013 IIE Doctoral Colloquium Poster Competition; and Amber Williams was awarded third place in the 2014 IIE Regional Student Paper Competition.

About the Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC

The mission of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina is: No One Goes Hungry in Central & Eastern North Carolina. Established in 1980, the Food Bank is a nonprofit organization that has provided food for people at risk of hunger in 34 counties for 30 years. The Food Bank serves a network of more than 800 partner agencies such as soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, and programs for children and adults through distribution centers in Durham, Greenville, New Bern, Raleigh, the Sandhills (Southern Pines) and Wilmington.