A little known city on the border of Mexico and Arizona is at the center of of Project Delta, an early-stage moonshot that started at X, Alphabet's moonshot factory, and recently moved to Google, where it will scale up its work. The city, Nogales, sees 75 percent of America’s winter produce pass through its port. It is here that Project Delta could solve America’s hunger crisis and food waste problem at the same time. Project Delta is working with Feeding America and Kroger to bring hard data science and artificial intelligence to the food banking world.
"We’re basically building an air traffic control system for food surplus," said Emily Ma, project lead for Project Delta. "Matching food surplus with demand from food banks."
Because of Nogales’ trade position, it has become an important component in donation strategies for the food banks Project Delta is working with. One, the Association of Arizona Food Banks, includes the four Feeding America food banks that serve the entire state and recently has added new members in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
In the United States alone, 35 percent percent of food supply ends up in landfill while one in eight Americans goes hungry. The food waste problem is so large that if food waste were its own country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has increased by 60 percent while grocery stores donate 300 pounds of leftover food everyday.
Project Delta is piloting and perfecting a system to solve both problems in the Southwest before hoping to expand to more food banks across the country.
Food bank leaders such as April Bradham, vice president of programs at the Association of Arizona Food Banks, and Dana Yost, chief operations officer at Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, direct produce donations to food banks across the country using just spreadsheets and gut instincts. With years of experience, they are able to make decisions in their heads about what needs to go where. But that’s a lot of stress for someone’s brain and leaves room for vast improvements.
We’re basically building an air traffic control system for food surplus.
That’s where Project Delta steps in. The team hopes its digital system can relieve some of the burden, make it less confusing and minimize missed opportunities. But Ma knows the first step in creating a new system is understanding the one that is already working. She needed to figure out what variables to put into her equation.
"I think what surprises most folks is the complexity that we face in food banking," said Bradham. "So we do a lot of sharing information with [Project Delta] on how we make decisions. And what are our processes, how much food are we moving through."
According to Bradham, large scale donating is essentially a second grocery store supply chain, but where the food banks have very little control over their supply. They might have some longstanding partners but many donations are unplanned, and because of that the food banks are always in reaction mode. Project Delta hopes to inform that reaction with data — the amount, type and final destination of the leftover food — and AI so the results are more impactful. Kroger also helped educate the data scientists in the ways food moves around the country at a massive scale.
Project Delta used that knowledge to find opportunities to close the gaps between Kroger and its food banking partners. Right now each Kroger store is associated with one food bank partner. To get leftover food to the bank, the partnership relies on a food bank employee collecting the excess products from that specific Kroger location each day.
But some food banks are tiny, run by only one or two people and might end up missing a few days. If that pick-up doesn’t happen, sometimes up to 300 pounds of food is wasted. If the food banks know before they arrive at the store what is available, they can plan pick-ups, bring the right size vehicle and direct donations more effectively. Project Delta plans to pilot a program that connects multiple Kroger stores to a network of food banks so if one bank misses a pick-up, another is ready to take its place. The goal is a more fluid and resilient system that decreases both food waste and hunger.
"We felt really strongly that if we could build some technology into this system that alerts the food banks what is available, it would make it more efficient," said Kari Armbruster, project manager for Kroger’s Zero Hunger program. "But that would take a lot of manual coordination that Kroger stores just don’t have the capacity to do. Having a software platform from Project Delta that is almost like a marketplace for a charitable surplus food is really interesting to us."
Kroger and Feeding America gave Project Delta access to their data so that they could take all the information about leftovers, expiration dates, final donation destinations and food bank needs and standardize it in a way that is useful and actionable. The data allows for a more accurate and complete information profile that enables grocers to get smarter about where donations need to land. The Project Delta team has so much reverence for Yost, who before this project was holding most of this data in his head and making decisions using his years of experience, that they called its data algorithm the Dana Bot.
"As he was making decisions, we would run our algorithms behind the scenes to see decisions that our algorithms would make are similar to the ones that he would make," Ma said. "And we were pretty close by the end."
The pandemic put a hold on Project Delta’s in field operations but as soon as restrictions lift, Ma hopes her team can travel to Arizona to test, validate and ensure that Data Bot is a robust solution so Project Delta can continue to grow.