Understanding and overcoming challenges in food pantry permitting
How can the City of Austin make it more safe, simple, and cost-effective to run a compliant food pantry?
The Office of Sustainability and the citizen-driven Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board are interested in creating a clear regulatory environment for local food pantries that enables them to safely offer high-demand products to residents in need. Currently, food pantries are classified as a food establishment that must undergo the same permitting process as a for-profit food establishment. The goal to uphold public safety standards conflict with goals to provide opportunities to resolve food insecurity. To reconcile these competing public policy objectives, the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board engaged with the the Service Design Lab to collaborate on a service design approach and understand how users and front-line staff interact with the current regulatory environment. Then prototype and test potential solutions.
- User research
- Process Mapping
Throughout this project I taught The Food Policy Board how to conduct user research and mentored them through the process. I then facilitated process mapping, brainstorming and rapid prototyping sessions.
Under my direction, the Food Policy Board conducted user research by interviewing different types of pantry operators. After completing their research our team facilitated an empathy mapping exercise to help them gain deeper insight into the experiences of food pantry operators based on whether they currently have a permit or not.
Process mapping facilitation & identifying problem areas
We brought together representatives with the internal city departments that touch the food pantry permitting process as well as a food pantry operator for 2 different process mapping sessions.
Identifying problem areas
Throughout process mapping, representatives easily spotted areas where problems existed. As they did, we noted those areas on the map and carried on. After mapping the entire process we were able to pinpoint the biggest challenges.
This was a turning point in the project. As the service providers were mapping out the process, the food pantry operator helped city staff see how impossible the task of getting permit for his pantry was. After reflecting on the process, the Food Policy Board decided that they would recommend a new permit type specifically designed for Charitable Food Organizations.
When then chose the 3 biggest challenges that came up through process mapping and led the Food Pantry Board through a brainstorming session.
Facilitating: brainstorming and rapid prototyping
With the process map finished, we were able to pinpoint 3 major problem areas. We presented the problem areas to the to the Food Policy Board and facilitated a brainstorming session with them using a crazy 8s framework.
Ideas were voted on by the members of the Food Pantry Board and documented by us.
The next day we led them through a rapid prototyping session using role play as a quick means to check pressure check the best solutions for feasibility. We assigned members of the Food Policy Board roles to play. Then we pretended to go through the permitting process. Through this exercises we identified that there were some constraints we hadn’t considered. This allowed the group to refine the ideas even more and try them out again.
As a result of this process, in collaboration with the Food Policy Board we able to present research-backed recommendations to City Council. The recommendations passed council and provide a safe, simple and cost-defective way to maintain a compliant food pantry.
Those recommendations included:
#1 Create a clear category and define the organization type.
#2 Develop sub-categories for LSCFOs (Limited Service Charitable Food Organization) to describe how pantries operates.
#3 Require LSCFOs to register with Austin Public Health and abide by Best Management Practices
#4 Develop Best Management Practices
#5 Request Fee Waivers and New Permit Type for Soup Kitchens
We also developed a flow chart a guide to help organizations determine if their food service operation requires a health permit, qualifies them for a LSCFO registration, or if they are exempt from either.
What I learned
Much of our success is tied to the project owner who was outside of our team. This person took the findings and recommendations and pushed them through to implementation. This experience helped me realize why our team has had such a hard time getting work completed after it leaves the studio.
This also showed me that service design is far more successful when we co-deign with people who have lived the experience. The Food Policy Board consists of food pantry operators, restaurant owners, and city employees. Co-designing with this team turned my and my team into facilitators and directors.
I also learned that all permitting and application processes are complex and great candidates for service design.