In 2016, Apparo joined forces with Loaves and Fishes and The Comdyn Group to bring Loaves and Fishes’s food pantry into the 21st century. The outcome was remarkable. Here is Loaves and Fishes’s story, told by the organization, themselves.
Equipped to Feed
Loaves & Fishes is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nondenominational organization founded and operated by local religious congregations and community organizations. Since 1975, Loaves & Fishes has responded to the problem of growing hunger in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina and continues to expand to meet that need. In its first year, the food pantry that began at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church fed 1,000 people. Today, Loaves & Fishes is a national model serving approximately 75,000 people a year through a network of over 30 food pantries in Mecklenburg County.
Operating in the Past
Loaves & Fishes is run almost entirely by volunteers, around 4,000, who run the pantries and phone center, as well as help us sort, pack, and deliver over one and half million pounds of food donations each year. Throughout most of our history, each Loaves & Fishes pantry operated largely without the utilization of modern day advancements including computers and internet. Referrals to our pantries were simply phoned into our centralized volunteer phone center by approved partner agencies and professionals working with people in need such as social workers, school counselors, doctors and clergy. Client visits were initially tracked on index cards and pantries would call in to get their lists for the day.
In the late 1990’s we began tracking clients on an internal computer database. In 2008, Loaves & Fishes began using a new internet based software to track referrals called in to our phone center. Since our pantries were not equipped with computers, we moved to fax machines as our main communication tool. Each day, the pantries would receive their daily client list via fax. Updated client lists would be faxed again throughout the day. For proper tracking, at the end of each shift, pantries were responsible for faxing back their client lists marking which clients had shopped for groceries.
Since many of the families we serve are in crisis, sometimes it is a challenge for them to make it to the pantry on their assigned day due to transportation issues or issues scheduling around their jobs. On average, Loaves & Fishes experiences a 25% missed pantry visit rate. Since clients are limited to eight visits in any rolling calendar year, we didn’t want to count a missed visit against them. Up-to-date, accurate scheduling and record keeping is critical for our operation and more importantly for the families needing food.
(Photo credit: Loaves and Fishes)
Time for a Change
In 2016, we realized we had reached a maximum capacity of pantry operations utilizing current tools. We knew the only way to build capacity was to embrace available technology. However, our volunteers are experts in kindness, not IT. As we looked to expand the number of pantries located throughout our community, we knew we needed a better communication tool than a fax machine. We also wanted to be able to offer some of our high volume partner agencies a referral tool other than a telephone during set call center hours. Many case workers, social workers, school teachers and medical professionals were comfortable and confident computer users wishing for the capability of making an online referral at their will.
We reached out to Apparo for help and recommendations. Loaves & Fishes was committed to providing computers for each of our pantries but knew that any system we chose would need to be extremely user friendly even for beginners. Many of our long time volunteers rarely or never have used computers so any new advancements had to be designed with them in mind. We also needed a system sophisticated enough to handle thousands of client records and manage the scheduling for over 30 different pantry locations.
Fortunately, Apparo paired us with the IT experts at The Comdyn Group who completed a thorough assessment of our current system. They offered us the opportunity to analyze or optimize how to best serve our community’s food insecurity needs. Since the database we were using was cloud based our initial hopes were simply to share it with our pantries and allow them to view the list in real time and check off clients when they arrived to shop. We also began piloting an online referral process with a partner agency responsible for a high volume of referrals. Early on in this process, however, we realized that the current database system would not be able to adopt some of the simple, streamlined procedures and user features we were requesting. At this point, The Comdyn Group made a dramatic and generous offer to custom design a new client software for us.
(Pictured below: The Loaves and Fishes team, featuring The Comdyn Group and Apparo)
A Custom Build
We gleefully accepted their offer. Over the course of 18 months, Apparo served as project manager for the design and implementation of a new software system created by The Comdyn Group for Loaves & Fishes. Throughout this process, we surveyed users, tested, retested, and then trained staff, pantry volunteers, phone center volunteers and referral partners. This June we successfully launched this new custom designed software aptly named FishNet.
Thanks to FishNet we are proud to boast about our new, improved capabilities in helping our neighbors in need. These benefits include:
- Online/Cloud Based Custom Designed Database that allows for 24/7 access.
- 24/7 Access allows for referrals to be entered online at any time by approved partner agencies. Trained professionals are now able to help the moment a family is facing a food insecurity crisis, not just between the hours of 9am-4pm Monday through Friday. Case workers, nonprofit professionals and other referral sources interested in completing online FishNet Referral Training can contact our office for more information. Trainings are offered monthly at our Administrative Offices.
- FishNet allows us to now track additional data regarding the clients we serve. Now in addition to knowing the number of children we serve we are able to track their ages.
- We are able to track the number of families receiving SNAP benefits.
- We are able to track disability status and veteran status.
- Pantries can see in real time who is on list for the day, how many people are scheduled and easily mark off who has already picked up their food.
- Thanks to FishNet, we know in real time how many referrals were made, for whom, for where and how often. We are able to track in real time how many clients received nutritious groceries each day.
- Additionally, the Pantry coordinators can now utilize FishNet to view missed appointments and reschedule families we serve who may have experienced transportation issues and other problems that kept them from making their assigned pantry visit. When a client arrives at the pantry, volunteers can search for the referral from previous days and check them in in real time. This feature allows pantries to serve the clients in a quick, easy and kind manner without multiple calls into our administrative office to verify or correct the appointment time.
Throughout this process we have come to realize how critical data and technology is to our operation. By knowing who is in need and where need is the greatest, we can more effectively and efficiently provide nutritious food to those who need it. If we truly want to make a dent in the growing hunger issue in our community and in every food insecure community, we have to constantly try to answer the underlying questions surrounding hunger.
Questions that the data collected in FishNet will now allow us to analyze and answer include:
- Who is hungry in our community? What are their ages, demographics, etc.?
- Who are the professionals in the human services, government, medical, educational fields and faith community connecting people in need to our services?
- Are our Loaves & Fishes pantries in the right locations? Which neighborhoods have the greatest need?
- Do we have enough food at each pantry location based on client need?
- What additional types of services might clients need in addition to food?
Thanks to our partnership with The Comdyn Group and Apparo, each and every day there are neighbors in our community who won’t have to worry if they will be able to feed their family. Thanks to our technology embrace, Loaves & Fishes is able to quickly and compassionately put food on so many more tables this very day.