How NGOs are using simple tech to feed the hungry in the midst of COVID-19

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett April 2, 2021
Extreme poverty and hunger have risen exponentially during the pandemic, in middle and high-income countries as much as elsewhere. But two NGOs, one in Peru and the other in the US, have been employing what amounts to relatively simple technology to try and do something about it.

Image of someone collecting a bowl of rice
(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay )

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the lives of many people, but by far the worst hit have been those already living in disadvantaged communities.

In fact, despite the huge strides made in reducing global poverty recently, extreme poverty rose last year for the first time in 20 years as the crisis compounded the effects of conflict and climate change, which were already slowing down results. Since 2015, the World Bank has defined extreme poverty as people in low-income countries living on $1.90 or less per day.

But the international financial institution now estimates that the pandemic could have pushed an additional 88-115 million people around the world into extreme poverty during 2020. The situation could get even worse over the year ahead, with the figure potentially hitting 150 million depending on how severe the resultant economic contraction becomes.

This scenario is not just affecting low-income countries though. It is also taking its toll on vulnerable communities in middle- and high-income countries too. One example of such a community in distress is Venezuelan refugees in Peru.

A simple solution to a complex problem

A mixture of minimal government support and a lack of savings and family nearby mean the refugees are forced to sell goods on the streets in order to make enough money to buy food each day. But when a military-enforced lockdown was imposed across the country in March last year, this avenue was taken away.

As a result, US-based Christian charity SIM, which has operated in Peru for the last 60 years, stepped in to help out in various cities, including the country's second largest, Arequipa. Here its four employees and 15 volunteers started delivering food parcels to as many as 300 people each week, using Excel spreadsheets to register their details and manage the distribution process.

But as numbers grew, eventually hitting 3,000, it became clear that such a manual approach was no longer adequate. At this point, David Jeyachandran, a software engineer who also looks after the charity's University Student Ministry, appealed to the online Drupal community, of which he is a member, for help.

A handful of developers, including Eduardo Telaya, Vladimir Roudakov, Janna Malikova and Heissen Lopez, responded. They assisted in creating a simple, easy-to-use website without images (apart from SIM's logo) in just a couple of days, which made it possible for people to sign up for food using old phones and low bandwidth.

The system, which was hosted for free by WebOps provider Pantheon, then sent recipients a WhatsApp message letting them know when their parcel would be available along with a map showing them where, and a button to indicate if they could make the appointment or whether they needed to reschedule.

Looking for the biggest gains

The web app has also been used to handle the logistics of delivering, scheduling and managing food distribution and pick up in the shape of a thousand parcels per week as each individual received one such package every three weeks. Between May and October 2020, this amounted to 137 tonnes of food being distributed, which included potatoes, rice, beans or lentils and milk.

As to what the secret to success was in responding so rapidly to the situation, Jeyachandran believes it was about keeping things simple rather than over-engineering them:

Rather than do everything, we looked at what we needed most. Giving food to different groups of people is a very complex challenge as there are a lot of variables - they leave and join the list, some have more needs than others or they're limited as to when they can get to certain places. So it's complex and if we tried to replicate all the different processes, it would take a long time. Therefore, we didn't automate everything - we looked to see where we could get the biggest gains instead.

For example, a manual list of the most vulnerable people who received food parcels each week was compiled and dealt with manually rather than creating a system with "too many moving parts". As Jeyachandran adds:

Complex systems often go wrong, so you need enough complexity to make life easier for people but not so much that things can break. So it's a difficult balancing act.

Even now that lockdown is over in Peru, the charity is still continuing to distribute about 100 food parcels a week, which it expects to do for the foreseeable future.

Dealing with domestic hunger

Another not-for-profit organization, which in this instance is working to eradicate hunger at home, is US-based charity, Share Our Strength. Originally set up in 1984 in response to the Ethiopian famine, it now employs about 300 staff, around 80% of whom focus their efforts on its No Kid Hungry (NKH) programme, both domestically and overseas. 

The aim of the programme, which was set up in 2010 to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is to eradicate childhood hunger and poverty. But as an indication of the scale of the need created by the pandemic, while one billion meals had been successfully distributed over the 10 years since the initiative was established, that number has been matched since the start of the current crisis.

While this huge increase is partly because of a higher awareness of what is going on at a local level, says Jason Wilson, No Kid Hungry's Managing Director of Brand and Marketing, it is also due to the fact that child hunger "was exacerbated overnight" as parents lost their jobs or were furloughed, putting more stress on family finances that were already stretched in many instances. In fact, he adds, the number of hungry children in the US rose from one in seven before the pandemic to one in four during it.

As a result, the decision was taken to expand the existing programme beyond its original remit of providing children with breakfast and lunch at school, plus food during the summer holidays, in order to better cope with lockdown situations across the country. This meant using school buses to deliver food safely to a range of different sites.

While a text service had existed since 2013 to inform families of the location of their three nearest food facilities during the summer months, the scale of the pandemic-related challenge called for something more. Therefore, the NKH team expanded the map-based, summer Free Meals Finder service already on its website in order to provide users with up-to-date information about what was a fast-moving and changeable situation.

The power of unlocking access

A further advantage of making the information available online though was that it became possible to offer additional and contextual information, which included supplementary services offered by partners and links for signing up to them. Wilson explains:

Our focus is on being a convener. So we don't directly buy the meals ourselves. We work with existing food programmes at the federal, state and local levels to provide the resources needed to get food to children. These partners dealt with things like the buses, PPE, fridges and logistics, and we focused on making the right connections, which ranges from food providers to state senators and legislators in Washington DC to ensure the right policies were enacted to make it all work. So we offered the Free Meal Finder, which has helped more than 250,000 families over the last year, as a direct service because our role is in unlocking access.

To do so, an external web partner was brought in to build the Free Meal Finder service in conjunction with an internal NKH team, while Pantheon "took care of the hosting details" for free - although the organization has since migrated its entire website over to the vendor as a paying customer, Wilson says.

The next step will be to introduce a chatbot to answer frequently-asked questions, such as which locations are offering what meals when. A further aim in future is to consult service users over what additional information they might find useful to be displayed, something that is likely to prove important, Wilson says, because "the impact of the pandemic will undoubtedly continue for a long time".

My take

The key message behind these case studies is the all-too-often underestimated power of simplicity and ease-of-use. In the middle of a crisis like the pandemic, most service users do not care whether the people supporting them use fancy technology or not. Instead the secret to success is in employing the best vehicle to provide the information they require quickly and effectively in order to survive.