The CIO of the largest hunger relief organization in the US talks to us about modernizing its data and technology infrastructure, and how digital connections can help deliver more food to those in need.
Congratulations on your Chicago CIO of the Year nomination, Maryann! Before joining Feeding America, you held leadership positions in well-known private sector companies. Is this your first not-for-profit role?
Yes, it is. This month will be my two-year anniversary. My background in retail and restaurants and distributed environments prepared me for the ecosystem that Feeding America is. The federated-type network is different to my previous experiences. Each of the food banks is a very independent entity. We support the mission but not day-to-day operations on the ground. Understanding that was model is key to determining where we can deliver value for them.
The more people we can help, the better. If we can build technologies that are going to solve multiple uses, great.Maryann Byrdak CIO of Feeding America
What have you learned about food scarcity and hunger that’s surprised you?
I did not understand that there are approximately 42 million people facing hunger in this country. That’s one in eight. You pass by 80 people on the street and 10 of them might be food insecure—that’s a lot. [Pause.] That’s a lot. And then I think about the children and how I’ve never had to go to bed hungry. Why should they?
I knew about the pantry in my church, and Northern Illinois Food Bank, but I didn’t know that all food banks across the country are connected and that there’s an organization that provides support to all of them.
Feeding America member food banks deliver billions of pounds of food every year. Not millions. Billions. Government and the for profit sector have roles to play in that too. I didn’t understand the scale of that effort or the generosity behind it.
How can technology help with delivering those billions?
We can really lean in and optimize our scale. If you think about the connections between donors, retailers, and food banks, well, that’s a standard supply chain process; it's Warehousing 101. The difference is there’s limited planning, forecasting, and demand planning.
Throughout my interview process, I got more excited with every conversation about the scale, and by the impact I could have. It’s greenfield, almost like a start‑up. Technology specific to this environment and the work we do doesn’t fully exist, but we can take use cases from other industries and apply them in a unique way.
What else makes Feeding America’s ecosystem unique?
There’s no competitive nature. We’re all, at the bottom of our hearts, solving for one thing. No matter if it’s our member food banks or other organizations in the same space, it’s not about competing. The more people we can help, the better. If we can build technologies that are going to solve multiple uses, great. Feeding America is the largest food rescue and food assistance organization in the country, and that gives us a leadership role in innovating. My first year was about getting comfortable. My second year has been figuring out how we prioritize the large amount of things we can lean in on. That’s my focus and my challenge at the same time, because you want to solve it all.
Speaking of solving … The US sends 70+ billion pounds of edible food to landfills each year. Your CEO, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, has spoken about what she called the “matching challenge” of redirecting surplus food to the people who need it. How is your team helping solve the challenge?
First and foremost, we’re working on developing a robust tool [an expansion of the MealConnect platform]. Through that one piece of technology, we’re going to connect 200 food banks and 60,000 agencies.
It will be very powerful once we have every single possible end point using the technology. Only through food banks adopting such technologies can we then promise the retail and agricultural food donors out there that no matter where you are, somebody’s waiting for your donation. What we’re also providing is the food banks’ ability to share with each other. Right now, it’s all emails and phone calls, and that’s labor intensive. We want to make it easy for food banks to maximize available resources. For them to say to three or four local food banks or large agencies, “Hey, I have this excess. Do you want to take it off my hands?”
How does Feeding America’s Connect Council support that effort?
How timely, we just had a call two hours ago! We have 15 food members; several are CEOs from large food banks, others are tech directors who lead technology teams within food banks, and one is a CFO. Our focus is technology innovation and how to digitally connect the ecosystem of our food banks, donors, agencies, and neighbors in need.
It’s the group we bounce ideas off and update on what’s going on and what’s coming up so they can spread the word and be advocates. I want them to be honest, and I value their input. Their role is to tell me, “You’re on the right path,” or “You’re crazy to take that on!” and everything in between.
Looking five years ahead, what do you hope to have achieved?
Right now, we know how many pounds of food are donated. We know which food banks those pounds ended up at, but not in a timely fashion. It’s not interconnected and involves a lot of manual typing. We don’t have real-time data that shows if somebody tried to get food from a pantry and we didn’t have enough to give them or if we’re in locations that are not convenient for them. We can do more.
In five years, I want to make sure the people we serve and the donors that support us know one thing: that Feeding America has the tools for all the connection points between the donor and the people who receive their food. And that everything between Feeding America, food banks, and agencies is transparent. Providing that feedback loop and traceability will help us say, “This donor donated X and it helped Y-many people in Z communities. Here’s how we can do even more together.”
It’s been a great experience with Slalom. We can have healthy conversations and healthy banter as to why or why not we should do something ... I am clear with my team and I’m clear with Slalom: No one’s an expert.
What about that journey keeps you up at night?
Adoption. We need all our member food banks using the systems we’re building or other systems we’ll connect to. But we need to make sure that the national office is connected too, and that we can answer questions from across the nation. If we build the new MealConnect and only 50% of our network is using it, I will feel that we failed. That I didn’t do enough.
When the stakes are so high, what’s it like to do this level of modernization work with consultants?
It’s been a great experience with Slalom. We can have healthy conversations and healthy banter as to why or why not we should do something. I didn’t hire Slalom to be yes men and women, right? When it comes to technology solutions, I am clear with my team and I’m clear with Slalom: No one’s an expert. We need to be challenging ourselves to not stick with the status quo. It’s a healthy relationship, and our business partners are seeing the value.
Finally, is there something you want people reading this Q&A to understand about hunger and food insecurity?
I mentioned my church pantry. The food at pantries comes from the food bank as well as local donations. Most pantries can’t exist without a food bank. Feeding America helps secure a percentage of food, then food banks work locally to secure more food and get it to agencies like pantries, and then the pantries will work on their own to secure some more. There’s a big, complicated supply chain behind it. I didn’t understand that about my church pantry.
At heart, everything my team is doing is about helping local pantries do more. But they need your help too. Please, reach out and donate or volunteer, get your kids to volunteer. Your support makes a difference.