Managing the harvest

Mar 3, 2006

Kettering students Donald Washington and Bryce Vuckovich, helped develop a hand-held device that manages the logistics of rescuing food perishables for Forgotten Harvest.

The Super Bowl frenzy is over. McDonald's wrappers skitter between the empty buildings and across a silent Woodward Avenue in Detroit on a cold, blustery winter day. Styrofoam cups with coffee stains have wedged themselves between the rusty grates of rain gutters beneath cement curbs. Near Grand Circus Parking, a vagrant might be slowly picking through a trash bin, hoping to find a half-eaten apple or the remains of a Danish tossed into the can by a visitor the day of the big game.

Hunger and waste: two problems that plague Southeast Michigan and directly impact those who are homeless or live below the poverty level. In a state where the unemployment rate hovers above 6 percent and countless scores of people find themselves without money, a roof over their head and something to eat, a free meal would seem like a forgotten prayer answered unexpectedly.

But answering small prayers is something Forgotten Harvest (FH) of Southfield, Mich., does everyday. Founded in 1990 to combat hunger and waste, Forgotten Harvest rescues more than 5.7 million pounds of food each year by collecting surplus perishable food from many sources, including restaurants, grocers, caterers, dairies, farmers, whole-sale food distributors and other Health Department-approved sources. FH then delivers the food free to emergency food providers in metro Detroit, which distribute the items to thousands of individuals and families.

And until recently, this honorable job had become more challenging as the organization saw substantial increases in the pounds of food grocers and other entities wanted to give to FH. Now, however, with the help of Kettering Sophomore Donald Washington of Detroit, Bryce Vuckovich of Flint, and their cooperative education partner, C & C Logistics ( of Canton, Mich., the logistics of managing the pickup, delivery and flow of food from one organization to another via FH has become much simpler.

As part of their cooperative work assignment, Washington, who majors in Computer Science at Kettering University, and Vuckovich, an Industrial Engineering major, are developing a logistical, technology-based hand-held tracking device similar to one used by the United Parcel Services (UPS). Washington is working on this project under the direction of Tom Cihonski, a principal at C & C Logistics.

"This project is just one important part of a larger transformation for Forgotten Harvest, which is currently experiencing phenomenal growth," Cihonski explained, adding that the organization's 40 percent increase in growth means that "automation and standardization of processes and business functions are critical for FH's plan to move forward and distribute even more food to the hungry in Southeast Michigan."

The actual device is a hand-based database management program for the Pocket PC 2003 operating system and uses a touch screen similar to the UPS devices. The idea is to install it to the industrial hand-held device, which runs Windows CE to track and balance food donations and agency receipts. When delivery personnel arrive back to the FH office, they doc the device in a cradle and upload data into the organization's Microsoft Access-based database.

For Washington, who will graduate from Kettering in 2009, this project is particular pleasing. "It feels good to know that my work will indirectly affect people who are in need," he said.

Cihonski also said that the potential exists for this device to increase service levels to the FH supply chain and provide more reliable, consistent and timely information flows. "Other organizations that use similar technologies typically see vast improvements in information process reliability and quality as a result of moving to direct and verifiable data entry programs," he said.

Susan Goodell, executive director of Forgotten Harvest, views the incorporation of this technology as pivotal during a critical time in the organization's history. The mission of FH is to increase the nutritional intake for at-risk people in Southeast Michigan by rescuing perishable food and delivering it to agencies that serve those at-risk populations. But while Goodell is proud of FH's dramatic growth the last few years, she said the organization had "understandably experienced several challenges." One of these challenges is to manually track the 8.1 million pounds of food the FH will pick up and deliver in 2006 alone.

"We knew of this issue several years ago," Goodell noted. "Whenever I saw a UPS deliveryman on a commercial with their hand-held tracking device, the answer to our problem was clear. However, the cost of that technology is expensive and the organization simply couldn't purchase it," she added.

All of this changed during a luncheon in 2005. Goodell sat next to Tammy Loud, Kettering's executive director of Cooperative Education Services, who told Goodell about the University's talented engineering students and how the school hoped to expand the placement of students beyond traditional firms that employ engineers. "As she told me more about the capabilities of Kettering students," Goodell recalled, "I knew that we had found the solution to our technology problem."

But the one issue left to resolve was to identify a real-life learning experience in student job placements that included technological expertise and oversight that Forgotten Harvest could not provide. "Fortunately, FH had just been adopted by a very generous consulting firm called C & C Logistics," Goodell said. C & C provides logistical consulting services to such entities as the defense department and chemical industry. Tom Cihonski was looking for an opportunity to make a difference in the local community and had volunteered to donate the firm's engineering and logistical expertise. Additionally, Forgotten Harvest won a grant of $8,000 from the Thomas Foundation of Southeast Michigan to help purchase three hand-held units and a mobile printer. Goodell also said that to really make this project fully operational requires approximately $58,000, which the organization is currently working on raising.

Today, Washington and Vuckovich are making strides in developing the hand-based technology FH requires to manage operations more efficiently. The goal is to have the technology up and running sometime in 2006, just as more and more food donations flow into the organization.

For more information about Forgotten Harvest, call 248-350-FOOD (3663). To learn more about C & C Logistics, contact (734) 751-8878.

Written by Gary J. Erwin