Manchester City Council needed a way to coordinate food deliveries to residents when COVID-19 lockdown meant people couldn’t visit local food banks. We helped by creating a system that ensured efficient deliveries to thousands of people every day, no matter what their dietary requirements were.
With stay-at-home orders in place across the UK in March 2020, food bank users in the Manchester area could no longer access this vital service. Manchester City Council began working with food banks to coordinate regular home deliveries to people in need, but soon found itself overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with demand.
The Council had set up a referral process and system of spreadsheets to manage food deliveries. The system considered which food banks were closest to people’s homes and which offered foods for special dietary needs, such as kosher or halal meals or meals that didn’t require kitchen preparation. However, keeping things updated as more and more people sought food assistanceconsumed a lot of hours every day. Duplicated or incorrect user information also complicated the process. Those difficulties increased the risk that people might not receive food at all, or that supplies at different food banks would be wasted rather than going to residents in need.
When the Council asked PwC for help, it was coordinating food deliveries to thousands of people each day. Demand was continuing to grow, at its height the food response team was delivering 2,000 food packages or cooked meals to residents in the City who were medically and/or financially vulnerable.
We provide a number of services to Manchester City Council, and staff also regularly help the Council through skills-based volunteering. So the Council was familiar with our commitment to community engagement through the Responsible Business programme and turned to us for advice. After learning of the Council’s food delivery challenges, a team from our Technology, Data and Analytics practice started to quickly build a new system to ease that process.
“When we do analytics, a lot of the data that we handle is financial transactions and it can be very impersonal. But the information we’re dealing with [here], you could very clearly appreciate the contribution we are making to people's lives. We’re dealing with individual people and their meals. The very real and human issue in front of us kept the team focused on the outcomes we wanted to create. At the end of every test, we wanted to ensure that everyone on the distribution list had received an allocation – in other words, that every person with a need was fed. It was very clear and obvious why a fix was needed.”
Our team started working on 20 April and began by having Council employees demonstrate the tasks they needed to handle every day. The team’s goal was to build a simple technology solution that could manage all those tasks quickly and efficiently and could be operated and maintained on-premises by the Council’s IT staff.
This required us to develop a solution with reusable, easily deployed tools that could be run on the Council’s in-house database and servers.
Over just two weeks, the team developed an automated system based on rules the food banks used to determine distribution priorities and maximise the available food supplies. New people coming into the system needed to receive food immediately. It was also important to ensure that existing users didn’t go more than a few days without receiving another allocation. A further challenge involved the different planning timescales of different food providers, which meant that every day’s distribution plan had to account for several days’ worth of deliveries.
After another week to test and tweak the system to make sure it worked as intended, PwC handed its code and database over to the Council’s IT team for implementation.
With the new system deployed on site, Manchester City Council was quickly able to reduce the time spent each day to update and manage food distribution across the city. What once required hours can now be handled in just seconds. New users were added to the system quickly, and delivery routes could be adjusted as needed. The system is easily updated to accommodate additional food providers. In fact, the Council itself became a distribution site, using a converted market to pack supplies for delivery across the region.
By mid-May 2020, the Council had provided support to 10,000 people and had coordinated the delivery of 30,000 food packages across Manchester. More than 40 organisations, 100-plus Council staff and hundreds of volunteers worked together to help distribute food.
The project posed several challenges. First, because it had to be managed in house – due to confidentiality requirements, given the population being served – the system needed to be deployed on the Council’s on-premises IT system.
Testing the solution also required a unique approach, as we weren’t able to use the Council’s actual user data before deployment: personal information, including addresses, had to be kept confidential under UK data privacy rules. The team worked around this limitation by creating randomised client data with addresses spread evenly across the region’s different post codes. This made it possible to run the allocation model to make sure every person in the system would receive food regularly from the best possible distribution site.
“The solution developed with PwC’s help demonstrates how government, the private sector and not-for-profit organisations can work together successfully for the benefit of all. With a better and more efficient way for us to manage food bank allocations and deliveries across the region, tens of thousands of people in need were assured of having food on the table every day.”
This project demonstrated that it’s possible to develop a technology solution rapidly when the need is urgent. The key is to keep such solutions simple and focused on the key objectives, enabling them to be deployed on existing infrastructure with little to no additional training.
While Manchester City Council’s food allocation system was built to manage an emergency situation, it is still being used nearly a year later to provide support to people in need. The Council expects to wind down the system’s use eventually, but it could easily reapply the technology to other needs as they arise, thanks to our combined focus on keeping the solution simple, flexible and reusable.