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Bread & Life is partnering with IBM to create a virtual model of our digital food pantry, as part of their exciting Science for Social Good initiative. Mary Helander, Senior Research Scientist and Software Architect at IBM, feels that “for-profits can learn a lot from Bread & Life,” and we’re thrilled to learn all we can from the brilliant minds at IBM.

Retired Bread & Life Executive Director Anthony Butler kept a blog to track the progress of the project.

Tony Butler’s blog, 2-14-2018

Last May I received a call from a former board member asking me if I would like to speak with a group from IBM.  This board member had recently worked in developing a tech incubator in partnership with IBM at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  I said yes, basing my decision solely on the respect I had for this board member and his creative approach to problem-solving.  Never did I imagine the interesting journey Bread and Life would go through with the IBM team and the amazing final product we would develop. 

Bread and Life, as a community-based organization focusing on social services and the provision of emergency food, has always based its service delivery on the belief that our guests (clients) know what they need but may have difficulty in accessing the things necessary to meet those needs.  I have steadfastly, as the Executive Director over the past 13 years, refused to apply a traditional clinical model to service provision.  Rather I believe, and evidence has proved this, that a retail type of model is a much better and much more dignified way to provide services in the community.  This idea, in the greater world of Human Services, has met with some resistance.   This is because in the realm of emergency food there has been a lack of development of articulated best practices.  The majority of best practices in Human Services come out of a clinical model.   This is not to disparage the use a clinical model to address certain needs or deficits in people’s lives, but rather to show that the response to poverty needs to be material and economic rather than psychological. 

The experience of working with the IBM people was truly eye-opening.  Their heuristic approach to understanding how Bread and Life operates was very refreshing.  Rather than simply taking reports from staff regarding our processes, they volunteered, met with guests and immersed themselves in the culture of Bread and Life.  It was only then that we began the process of deciding what we would like to develop.  Through several iterations, a final goal began to emerge.  Bread and Life has become recognized as a leader in technologies and business practices in the emergency food world.  This has led to consulting with other groups as to how to improve extant or start new emergency feeding programs.  The IBM team developed a piece of software which would analyze our service delivery patterns (food and nonfood), their efficiencies, and our use of working capital.  It is a tool that allows us to ask, what if? We can speculate on changes to service delivery and see their impact and cost before we embark.  This allows us to make very targeted and responsible choices with our resources.  IBM has given us the power to articulate, prove and employ a retail model in our work to alleviate poverty. 

This is the first of what I hope will become a blog that will detail our journey in the use of this technology.  This is been an amazing opportunity for Bread and Life to partner with major thought leaders who bring their amazing resources to bear on the problem of hunger and poverty.