Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

Old Testament stochastics

For a team of food bank veterans and academics from Cornell University and Boston College, it’s a case where Old Testament meets modern mathematics.

Food insecurity is a pressing issue, even in developed countries. The U.S. government estimated that 14 percent of the population lacked reliable access to enough affordable nutritious food in 2014. Compounding that problem are unharvested crops – which might total 6 percent to 7 percent.

Farmers leave food in the field for various reasons. The price of, say, lettuce might drop to where the farmer would lose money by picking, delivering and selling the produce. And harvesting machines sometimes miss fruits and vegetables.

Back in biblical times, the practice of gleaning allowed the poor to pick crops left over in the fields of the rich. The Boston Area Gleaners and Food Bank of the Southern Tier do just that, gathering volunteers and arranging logistics.

It’s a classic operations management problem ripe for industrial and systems engineering. In one way, planning and scheduling, supply chain management and sustainability are all involved.

How do you match volunteer labor with donations sitting in a field? How do you deliver perishable goods before they spoil? How do you get the most production out of your volunteers without burning them out?

Erkut Sonmez, Deishin Lee, Miguel I. Gómez, Xiaoli Fan, Laurie Caldwell, Natasha R. Thompson and Melissa Knowles answer those questions with a stochastic optimization model. In “There for the Picking,” they explain how the mathematical technique reveals the best answers in the face of uncertainty in donations and workforce.

The simulations help practitioners decide on the optimal number of trips to glean the most food without overusing the labor pool. The findings also showed that the gleaners and the food bank should spend as much time and effort to keep the current volunteers as they do in recruiting more.

So turn to click here and find out how operations management helps feed the hungry in the Northeastern United States.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IISE. Reach him at mhughes@iise.org or (770) 349-1110.