This time of year most of us, at least in the U.S., are focused on seeing friends and family, giving thanks, and eating as much turkey, pie, and mashed potatoes as humanly possible. But for millions of Americans, getting access to food is a struggle which can entail long wait times at food pantries and an unpredictable selection.

Plentiful, a project within the New York City Food Assistance Collaborative, is working to make the process of visiting a food pantry a little easier for everyone involved. Funded by the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the free software tool lets New Yorkers search local food pantries and make a reservation, so they can get served quickly without excessive time spent in line.

A simple feature, to be sure — but apparently the results have been dramatic. According to Bryan Moran, technical lead for Plentiful, the tool reduces the average wait time from an hour and a half to just a few minutes. Users can also easily look up nearby food pantries and get accurate, up-to-date operating hours, and give feedback on a particular pantry’s selection. On the flip side, pantries can use Plentiful’s service to see upcoming reservations and plan ahead to make sure they have enough food for the day.

Plentiful is available through an Android-based app with maps, but the software works with any phone that can text message. Users just have to text the word “FOOD” to PANTRY, answer a few basic questions, and they’ll be able to book a reservation to visit a food pantry in their area.

Not an English speaker? No problem — Plentiful works in nine languages. If a client begins answering Plentiful’s text questions in, say, Bengali, the software will recognize the change and translate all future communication into that language.

Plentiful also functions as a data collection tool, tracking which zip codes food pantry users are coming from, where they’re going to, and how frequently they visit each pantry. “This is the first time we have unduplicated results across cities about people who are using food pantries,” said Moran, “It’s much better than a paper sign-in sheet,” he added, which is how food pantries have historically tracked their users.

Since its launch with three pantries in 2016, Plentiful has grown to work with 200 locations in the New York City area. Moran told me that, in any given month, they see roughly 40,000 – 50,000 users on the app. As of now, Plentiful is only available in NYC, but their team is working to expand to more locations soon.

Eventually, Moran hopes that Plentiful can help tackle food waste, as well. He told me that they see an opportunity to integrate Plentiful data into the food procurement side of the pantry system, so they can optimize for less food waste. They’re even looking into creating a pathway to help people with excess food share meals.

At the Spoon, we’re always on the lookout for smart, simple solutions to solve big problems in the food system. It’s time to give thanks that Plentiful seems to be doing just that.

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