PhD candidate Meike helps food banks: ‘I hope that in future food banks will focus less on poverty and more on food waste’

By rearranging the warehouse, or by better predicting the number of customers, a local food bank can distribute even more food packages. Meike Reusken, data analyst and PhD candidate at Tilburg University’s Zero Hunger Lab, uses her research to improve logistics processes in Dutch food banks. A conversation about motivation, volunteering and food waste.

Meike Reusken. Picture Ton Toemen

In 2020, 160,500 people knocked on the door of a food bank because they had too little money left for groceries at the bottom of the queue. This group also includes 35,000 children. Meike Reusken has only been working on her PhD research in optimizing humanitarian aid for a year and a half. Yet she has already heard many sad stories. “They motivate me, even though I sometimes feel pressured to do my job as well as possible.”

Brick stoves

“My first encounter with poverty was in Tanzania, where I volunteered for three months after high school. I was there through Raleigh International, a non-governmental organization that puts young and young adults into development work. Often in remote villages in poor countries. The bus ride to one of these villages took several days, two of which were only on unpaved gravel roads.

“One of the projects I helped with was building rocket furnaces† Brick stoves that are much more efficient than the open fireplaces that the villagers used to cook on. It’s almost ten years since I was there, nowadays our society looks at that kind of development work in a different way. The question is now increasingly being asked whether such activities help or whether they do not actually cause harm.

“The ovens are still there, I’m sure. I personally believe that small contributions can make a difference. All progress in development aid starts with small steps, with drops in the sea. This is how I see my dissertation: as a small contribution to the fight against poverty. ”

Uncertainty and lack of data

“When I returned from Africa, I went to study International Business Administration and International Economics in Rotterdam. Because I missed math in those courses, and felt like studying further, I took a master’s degree in econometrics at Tilburg University. Through the company where I was an intern at the time, I came in contact with the Zero Hunger Lab.

“The idea of ​​taking my PhD degree had already crossed my mind because I had enjoyed writing the two master’s dissertations. But I wanted to work in a practical and social environment. It all came together at the Zero Hunger Lab. The laboratory combines research with effect. In concrete terms, this means that we, together with various social partners, solve as many hunger problems in society as possible.

“I was attached to Food Banks Holland from Zero Hunger Lab, and during my first year and a half as a PhD student, I was primarily involved in getting to know each other. It immediately became clear to me that uncertainty and the limited availability of data are two major problems in humanitarian aid, and that the focus of my research should be mainly there.

“Food banks often do not know what to expect, and this affects the amount of packages they can deliver. ‘How many customers do we have next year and how much storage and transport capacity do we need?’ ‘How do you distribute national donations across the country in a fair and optimal way?’ Based on the available data, I examine how better decisions can be made in the future. ”

KNVB of food aid

“You can see food banks in the Netherlands like KNVB for Dutch food aid. In total, there are 171 food banks in the Netherlands. These are all private initiatives: distribution centers with distribution counters, where volunteers give donated food to people who have too little money for groceries. Food banks in the Netherlands are the umbrella organization for all these places. She can not make decisions for the local food banks, but she can set guidelines.

“Together with the other volunteers, I now help in Food Banks Holland, ie at the umbrella level. This is where I can do the most, with my background as a data analyst. I went out into the country for a logistics project, for the local initiatives. I had not realized it beforehand, but there are big differences between all food banks.

Busy times before Christmas in the distribution center in Rotterdam. Picture Ton Toemen

“The way they are decorated is hugely different. One is in an old school with many small seats, the other has a practically furnished warehouse. But the supply also varies. Rural food banks have much more dairy products in their packed lunches because they are closer to farms. About forty percent of all food banks hand out pre-packaged boxes, the other half have a retail concept. People can choose what they want there.

“At board level, I help the food banks to learn from each other and to even out the biggest differences. The main goal of my model, which I use in my research, is to be able to distribute as many packages as possible to as many people as possible. This can be done, for example, by adapting the storage space, or by distributing the donated food more fairly across the country. ”

Do not forget responsibility

“I have had meetings with all the chairmen of the local initiatives, ie with more than a hundred people. On those occasions, I realized how big the group of people the food banks are for. These hundreds of team leaders are all responsible for the many volunteers at their location and for many more customers. Food Banks Holland is truly a gigantic organization.

“I think part of the solution to hunger in our country lies in raising the minimum wage. I see that a large portion of food bank customers are single parents. They work, but they earn too little to support their families. The target group, which I hear a lot about from the volunteers at the distribution counters, motivates me enormously. Every day again. It’s such a great idea to be able to focus on something so important.

“I hear stories about mothers who want to hide from their children that they are going to the food bank, or people who come in ashamed. When I do my work, I often think of them. Therefore, I want to do my food banking work really well, and my responsibilities as a PhD student sometimes fall into the background. If I do not take care, there will be no time left to publish my research results. “

Less hunger, less waste

“In fact, there should be twenty data experts working at Food Banks Holland. In any case, data analysis and the optimization that you can subsequently implement are extremely important for humanitarian aid. In this connection, the business community is enormously ahead of the curve and has for a long time benefited from the knowledge that computer systems can provide NGOs do not yet make enough use of this opportunity.

“Even if hunger in the Netherlands subsides at some point, I think food banks will continue to exist. It is my hope that then, even more than now, they will be there primarily to prevent food waste. I am already trying to contribute to this by, for example, distributing the donated food more fairly across the country. Efficient use of resources only becomes more important, just look at the sustainability discussions. There will be a lot of work in the food banks in the coming years, even after my dissertation. ”

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