Food insecurity is a huge challenge all over the world. Yet it’s hard to believe that so many people are still going hungry in a country with as many resources as ours. That’s why it’s heartening to hear about people like Barrington resident Joe Intrakamhang, who is using his professional skills to help eliminate hunger in America. Intrakamhang has spent the past several years rethinking and reorganizing the way America addresses food insecurity.
When he was growing up in Chicago, his family was one of the first to open a Thai restaurant there. “Growing up in the restaurant industry really caused me to have a passion for food.” That’s why when this project came up at Google, he readily volunteered for it and then became a full-time employee on the project. “I was completely familiar with food insecurity. A lot of people think, ‘I have extra food and I should be able to donate it and this should be pretty easy.’ But it’s a very difficult and complex system. It’s not a simple fix.”
Intrakamhang was an employee of Google X, the semi-secret research and development sister company of Google. Intrakamhang and his team at X used innovative data techniques to work toward solving food waste and food insecurity. “We partnered closely with Feeding America, the largest non-profit food hunger-relief organization in the United States that just happens to be based in Chicago. And then we also partnered with Kroger which has a zero hunger zero waste initiative,” Intrakamhang says.
Some background information that may be helpful: Kroger is a longtime historic partner of Feeding America—the two organizations have worked together for four decades. As part of a nationwide retail donation program, Kroger stores (locally that’s Mariano’s) regularly set aside food to be donated and Feeding America member food banks coordinate pickups and distribute the food in their communities through pantries.
Much of the food system in the U.S. still operates on paper printouts and spreadsheets. While these ways of capturing, analyzing, and communicating data have increased the pace and scale of business over time, they do bring limits. As disparate organizations look to work together and share vast amounts of data in real time, emailing spreadsheets back and forth no longer suffices.
As part of their company-wide Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative, Kroger sought to make more of their vast donation and waste database. Leading the industry, in 2017 Kroger publicly committed to donating three billion meals by 2025 and were keen to find as many donation opportunities as possible across their network of 2,700-plus stores nationwide. To do so, they wanted to find deeper patterns in their own store data and also in the food charity data of their food banking partners pertaining to Kroger’s donation patterns.
By partnering closely with both Feeding America and Kroger, X was able to take advantage of what Google exceeds at, big data, in order to optimize the products Kroger had to give and find the best places to donate that food.
“My role was to gather all this information by working closely with Feeding America, gather all their data in a single spot and try to make some insights,” says Intrakamhang. “My work entailed looking at the data so I can understand where food hunger is and then working closely with Feeding America and understanding who most needs the food and what is the best way to get it there.”
One of the goals of the data was to help Kroger identify excess food that can be donated to food pantries and how to do that in a timely and efficient manner.
For example, let’s say there’s a store that has an excess of produce. The technology that Intrakamhang and his team developed will help identify what nearby pantry has a need for it and how they can most efficiently get it there.
Combining his professional data skills and his passion for ending the food insecurity crisis, Intrakamhang is really helping stamp out hunger in America.