How does food aid get from a farmer’s field to the communities who need it most?

Every year, emergency food aid is provided to millions of people worldwide, but the process of getting food from a farmer’s field to the communities that need it can be challenging.

Food aid often becomes infested or spoiled during transit due to hot and humid climates, long transit times, and poor warehousing.

To address this challenge, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are teaming up with the US Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace program to evaluate and improve the current food aid supply chain.

Food aid is often packaged in bags stacked on pallets or slipsheets, sometimes several pallets or slipsheets high, in US-based warehouses before being shipped.

This winter, MIT graduate students Prithvi Sundar and Mark Brennan traveled through the Heartland, from some of the northern-most states down to the Gulf, to better understand the domestic side of this supply chain. How do American crops make it from the field to the food aid bags that will ultimately be shipped overseas?

Mark Brennan (left) and Prithvi Sundar (right) are two MIT graduate students working with MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation to better understand and evaluate the food aid supply chain.

Prithvi and Mark met with commodity suppliers, bag manufacturers, and port warehouse operators along the way to understand how different proposed packaging options might interact with their current manufacturing processes.

Their work, part of MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation, will help determine the cost-effectiveness of different packaging options, and to explore the viability of alternatives to current fumigation practices that will help control for infestation and spoilage in food aid, including hermetic grain bags, hermetic transit liners, and other high quality packaging materials.

The following are snapshots from Prithvi and Mark’s research tour across the US — glimpses into the supply chain in action:

Many legumes, fortified, and bagged products are sourced from rural areas across the Midwest, South, and Pacific Northwest.
8:30am and about 10 degrees in the northwestern United States, a major pea-supplying region.
A Texas warehouse contains neatly stacked batches of food aid, ready to be moved onto ships via conveyor belts or into containers and onto ships.
The scale of the firms on the Gulf that provide bulk commodities, such as sorghum, is tremendous.
Many of the plants that provide bagged and fortified products are sprinkled across the Midwest in small towns of 5,000–15,000.
Rail transport, running north from as far as North Dakota and as far south as the Gulf, are essential to move food aid.
Bagged food aid is manually unloaded upon arrival in domestic warehousing facilities.

This spring, researchers will turn their attention to understanding and evaluating the international leg of the supply chain, examining how food aid makes it from a US-based port to central ports in South Africa and Djibouti to community beneficiaries.

Together, the many outcomes of this study — a holistic evaluation of the technologies and processes used in the food aid supply chain — aim to provide USAID and its food aid partners with evidence for data-driven decision-making to better achieve food aid goals.

Learn more about this research project on our website!

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