When the demand for food unexpectedly increased, but there were no sources of supply during COVID-19, how could Food Banks continue operating? An empirical case from a Portuguese Food Bank

Supply Chain

publication date 30/01/2023

This article was written by Rosa AZEVEDO, Master in Management Grande Ecole Student and won 3dr Inclusivity Price thesis. Mehdi Amiri-Aref, KEDGE Professor was responsible for this thesis.

The dilemma

In the food banking sector, the pandemic has disrupted supply chains due to health measures restrictions, lockdowns, quarantines, labor shortages, blockages of street routes, and physical distance measures (Rolle, 2020). Indeed, food banks had to go beyond their limits to “feed” vulnerable people, namely the newly unemployed individuals in addition to the previous impoverished ones. Hence, these organizations had to deal with a demand shock, with an increasing number of those financially affected by COVID-19 while, facing a supply shock, with difficulties in obtaining in-kind and monetary donations (Akwii et al., 2021).

Even though this is not the first crisis undermining the food banking sector, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought severe and long-term effects induced by financial issues worldwide.  Research on the food bank industry and the resource constraints these organizations encounter is important to identify a range of potential solutions to the problems they face in the singular environment in which they operate (Rolle, 2020).

The case background

In this sense, an analysis was conducted on a non-profit organization, namely a Portuguese Food Bank Against Hunger. The research intended to assess the challenges faced by this organization during COVID-19 and to what extent, lessons could be extracted from this pandemic intensive-learning period, to accommodate future disruptive events. 

Therefore, the main challenges faced consisted of the increasing number of people in need of food assistance; the fact that donations have not kept up with demand; the lack of purchasing power of the final consumers; difficulty procuring fresh food in sufficient numbers; the disruption in the normal logistical and transportation process and finally, the unanticipated costs and reduction in financial resources. 

Strategies implemented

The most surprising findings ended to be the ability to redistribute a greater amount of food products to the supported institutions, despite the unprecedented and challenging scenario brought by COVID-19. However, the food bank has only managed to maintain its operations due to the innovative strategies implemented, for instance: new strategies for fundraising; new working methods and processes; new controlling systems, and the formalization of functions and teams.

  • The new strategies for fundraising focused on finding new methods of contribution to their cause, by creating and formalizing a team of volunteers  accountable for the procurement of new partners. 
  • New working methods and processes encompassed new working shifts, teleworking implementation, stricter security, and hygiene procedures in all the 
    processes, the implementation of layouts in the warehouse, and lastly, a restructuring new way of allocating and distributing products to the institutions
  • New internal controlling systems addressed the execution of more streamlined processes, with a final focus on ensuring that food was not wasted and that the extant food was adequately delivered to the final beneficiaries. 
  • Finally, the formalization of functions and teams enabled better management of the fundraising and volunteers’ team.

Being able to rapidly obtain food products from different locations, undertake the necessary adjustments to old processes, and adapt to a new distribution system, while handling a higher demand in a continuously changing environment, reflects the importance of agility and resilience within supply chains (Capodistrias et al., 2021). 

Final takeaways

Due to the severity of the crisis, all businesses — profit or non-profit — have been forced to reconsider their supply chain strategy and have implemented various trends that have been highlighted in the academic literature (Gupta et al., 2021).

Firstly, just-in-time inventory may be profitable and efficient within normal conditions. However, within scenarios of crises, emergency food baskets were needed to supply some of the institutions that run out of stock.

Therefore, it has become clear in the the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, that this method fails to prepare global supply networks for severe shocks like the COVID-19 one (Raj et al., 2022). 

Moreover, it was also notable the trend toward digitalization. In the end, it enhanced the importance of digitization across various sectors, and it has considerably encouraged the reduction of COVID-19 spread, as teleworking and digitally coordinated logistics have helped to mitigate the pandemic's damaging effects (Kovács & Sigala, 2021).

Additionally, it is also important to emphasize the importance of possessing adiversified and local base of suppliers (Butt, 2021; Pujawan & Bah, 2022). This fact 
ensures that a shorter food supply chain, during social crises can serve as a backup and a complementary option for addressing the disruption of the food bank distribution system that might happen.

Finally, according to the academic literature, it was stated that the ability of the supply chain to react to unforeseen events, respond to and resist disruptions, and recover from them, while maintaining operational continuity is referred to as supply chain resilience.

As a result, a resilient supply network can adapt to unexpected events and return to its original shape by rectifying specific disruptions or restructuring into a different configuration (Herold et al., 2021; Raassens et al., 2021).

Consequently, this institution has also reshaped its supply chain, due to the innovations prompted by the crises and should be viewed as key lessons, not only for the current pandemic but also for future social crises. Indeed, the innovative strategies implemented resulted from the adaptation of the organization to this unanticipated and disruptive event.


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