The Problem in Food Transportation

This is the team’s project submission for the 2009 FLL season:

The Problem in Food Transportation

Although everyone relies on transportation, it means something different to each individual: cars, camels, bikes or buses. However, transportation, and the problems that come with it, encompasses a much larger field that the most people would think. For this year’s research project, the Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads first searched for a subcategory of transportation, and after a long review process, decided to study food transportation. To this ordinary problem, the Battery Powered Picklejar Heads decided to create an extraordinary solution. After researching the different problems of food transportation, the Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads identified their problem. The biggest and most important problem that they found with the transportation of food was that food was transported over very long distances. Currently, food is being transported over thousands of miles from one hemisphere to another. This huge amount of transportation is terribly inefficient, and produces a massive amount of greenhouse gases. For example, fruit grown in New Zealand is transported by boat halfway around the world to California. Once the food arrives, a fleet of large and very inefficient trucks carries the food across America to New England and Boston.

There are a few ways to reduce this problem. One way to do this would be to increase the efficiency of the trucks. However, a large amount of time and money is required to develop new technologies. Thus, the only remaining method to decrease the waste of transporting food of long distances is to decrease the amount of transportation itself. To do this, the food would need to be grown locally, such as at small, urban farms. For their community, the Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads decided on America, specifically Boston and Chicago. One such organization which promotes the consumption of locally grown foods is the farm run by Mr. Ken Dunn in Chicago. Mr. Dunn took vacant lots in downtown Chicago and converted them into farming grounds. He sells his produce to members of the community and local restaurants. However, Mr. Dunn has a few problems. The most notable of these was with collecting payment from customers. Some of his customers such as the disabled or elderly, cannot leave their homes, yet still would like to buy food from his farms. Several years ago, he sent children with wagons carrying food to these people and carrying money back. However, Mr. Dunn’s farms are located in very high-crime areas. Thus, it was unsafe for people, especially children, to move through the city while carrying cash, as they were liable to be robbed. Thus, Mr. Dunn asked the Battery Powered Picklejar Heads to try to create a solution to this problem.

How to Get Food with a SNAP of Your Fingers!

Approximately 41 million Americans in working families can’t afford basic necessities like food.

With the cost of food, rent, and fuel on the rise, it’s logical that some New Yorkers are having more trouble putting food on the table. But the numbers from a report issued earlier this month by the Food Bank for New York City are startling. A staggering 3.1 million residents, or 38 percent of the New York City population, said they had difficulty affording needed food last year. This figure is up a substantial 55 percent from just five years ago when 2 million residents expressed difficulty, in a similar Food Bank survey. The only options for these people to obtain food are to go to food pantries, or to buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

In order to use SNAP, a person must have a net monthly income of less than or equal to the federal poverty guidelines. Due to the fact that inner-city areas, such as Chicago or New York, are rather poor, many of the 35 million users of SNAP are located in these areas. In order to bring food to many of these people, SNAP would have to be the form of payment, as many of these people rely on it for food.

There are several reasons why the farm stands’ customers would in most cases, have to pay with SNAP. For most of the customers, SNAP would be the only option. However, some probably would be financially capable of using cash instead of using SNAP. However, due to the high crime rates that generally occur in low-income areas, cash cannot be used, as having a large amount of cash in these areas would make a person an obvious target for robbery. Thus, the farm stand’s customers are left with SNAP, which acts much like a debit card. SNAP cards are not a target for theft, as although they can buy food, if they are stolen, they can easily be canceled, and reissued to the original owner. SNAP cards are non-transferable.

SNAP is already being used to purchase food at farmer’s markets around the country, in a way very similar what would be done at Mr. Dunn’s farmstand if he were to accept SNAP as a method of payment. SNAP usage in this way is especially prevalent in urban cities, where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find. SNAP could be used at Mr. Dunn’s farmstand, and it would be a very good solution to his problem, as thieves would have no use for a SNAP card.

However, accepting SNAP may not be the best solution to Mr. Dunn’s problem. For example, in order to read the cards, one needs an electrical supply. Wooden cards are still used, which aren’t electric, but many people reliant on SNAP use the electric cards, so a card reader would be necessary. Also, not everybody can use SNAP, meaning that some costumers who would be delivered to might still have to pay in cash. However, the federal government will provide SNAP card readers to businesses for free, if the business has been inspected by the government. This removes financial incentives for not accepting the food stamps at stores (i.e. not having to pay for the card readers).

Mobile Money

One possibility to solve the problem customers having their cash stolen is Mobile Money. The basic premise of Mobile Money is that it allows customers to transfer funds easily without actually transferring cash, which can be robbed. The main platform for this money transfer is the mobile phone. The mobile phone is used for two reasons: first, because almost everybody has a mobile phone, and thus everyone could use the service, and because mobile phones are all uniquely identified by a telephone number. This is a great benefit to the service, because it easily allows the money sender and the recipient to be identified by their unique numbers and prevents fraud.

Though the idea of mobile money has great potential, it is quite difficult to put into practice in the United States, because of the competition from preexisting systems and the market’s inertia. However, in other parts of the world where the preexisting systems do not exist, mobile money has been becoming quite popular. For example, three quarters of the mobile money market is in the third world counties, which are rather poor. The fact that mobile money has enjoyed enormous expansion in poorer countries shows that mobile money probably does not have very high maintenance costs, as if it did, then the people in these countries probably would not be able to afford it. However, there are still problems with the current mobile money system. For example, Citi Bank has a system called Citi Mobile, which allows people to transfer funds, pay bills, and check their account balances, if they have a bank account with Citi Bank.However, the system does not let people use their money without going to a bank.

One of the most developed systems is MasterCard’s MoneySend program. This system (although still in development) lets people move their money electronically in real time. Also, the user can use a regular mobile phone to transfer funds. To do this, the user simply must text-message a central server with the amount of money to be transferred and the phone number of the recipient of the money. This system currently has approximately 350 million users. Because MasterCard, which has a huge customer base, provides this service, instead of a start-up company that has no customer base, MasterCard might let their existing customers add this service to their account as an extra feature on their current credit card account. There is probably an extra fee each time the user sends one of these “special” text messages. For security, there is a confirmation call each time the user requests money from the user’s account. The user is given a PIN number that he/she has to type in at the confirmation call. MasterCard’s goal is to create a password protected security system to transfer funds. The challenge is in figuring out how to split the revenue between the operators, bank, and phone companies. Unlike many start-up companies, MasterCard is a well-established, respected company, and therefore, has a stronger infrastructure already in place. Thus, MasterCard’s program has a higher likelihood of success when implemented. The Battery Powered Picklejar Heads spoke with Mr. George Chung, who created another such program, called Mfunds. In Mfunds, users who belong to the same bank can transfer money back and forth via SMS. The only limitation is that, to transfer money, both users must belong to the same bank. Even though Mfunds services several banks, the infrastructure to transfer money between banks does not exist and thus is not possible.

Local Currencies

Another possible solution is the creation of a local currency. A local currency is a form of money which is used only by the inhabitants of a small area for which the local currency was made. An example of one such local currency is the “BerkShare”. BerkShares are used in the Berkshire region. The launch of this new currency in the fall of 2006 was quite successful. Two million BerkShares have been circulating to date. Also, the city of Ithaca, New York, has “Ithaca Hours”. These hours can be used to pay for things such as bus fares. One more alternate currency is being created by the Brooklyn Torch Project. Their goal is to provide the denizens of Brooklyn with a currency that can circulate and support the residential community. By using this alternative payment method, it becomes possible to pay for goods and services without using real money. Local currency can only be used by members of the community. Those outside the community cannot use the currency, and thus have no incentive to steal it, which solves the problem of theft. About seventy five local currency systems have been established recently in the USA.

According to Professor Howell Jackson, who teaches at Harvard about the regulations of financial institutions, the legality of these local currencies is dubious. Local currencies are often still under regulations by the federal government. However, since these currencies operate on a rather small scale, they escape the notice of the federal government.

The need for alternative money arises out of the fact that money can be used anywhere and that there is no way to track it. Unlike a check or a credit card, anyone can use cash to buy anything. In high-crime areas where cash is likely to be stolen, it is a terrible idea to carry around cash. Doing so makes one an obvious target for robbery. Alternative money can be in a representative form, like a check or a credit card, or can be in a virtual form. Some virtual examples are in video games, such as Second Life. Here players can transfer money from LindeX, Second Life dollars, to USD. Checks and credit cards are common in places such as Lexington, but in the urban areas that the Battery Powered Picklejar Heads are concerned with, many people will not have a bank account, thus rendering these methods useless, for one cannot use mobile money in the United States if one does not have a bank account.

Our Solution

To solve the problems resulting from transferring money in high crime areas, we propose to implement a local currency. Each individual who wished to become a part of the farm would pay an annual 10-dollar joining fee. This fee would be used to cover the costs of printing the local currency. This would solve the problem, because the local money can only be used at the food stand, so people are less likely to steal the money from those transporting it, as because only members can use it, the money would have no value to non-members. This money presumably would be backed up by the values of the vegetables that it could buy: a carrot; one, a potato; two, a cabbage; five, etc. To be able to provide food to those who were not financially capable of buying this currency and wish to pay through SNAP (Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program), the farm would have to apply for the right to accept these cards. If the farms qualified, then they would receive a free SNAP card reader from the government and would use this to accept the cards. To provide electricity for the card reader, there would be a battery connected to the reader that would be charged overnight at a worker’s house. Because the card reader would not use a huge amount of power, the battery, if big enough, would last the whole day and could then be recharged at a worker’s home overnight.

Sharing our Solution

We shared our solution and consulted with:

· Mr. Ken Dunn, who runs the Chicago Resource Center farms

· Mr. Michael Iceland, head of the Boston Food Project

· Professor Howell Jackson, who teaches the regulation of financial institutions at Harvard Law School.

· Ms. Carolyn Wortman, who runs the Lexington, MA Interfaith Food Pantry.

· Ms. Carol Tienken, the Chief Operating Officer, and Paul Swindlehurst, the Executive Vice President, at the Greater Boston Food Bank.

· Mr. George Chung, who developed Mfunds, a mobile money system.

· Ms. Ashley Boynton, who is the Team Leader of the Bedford, MA, Whole Foods grocery store.

· Mr. Benji Bergstrand, who worked with Mr. Dunn and who now runs Root Down, a community-supported farm in Bluffton, Ohio.

· Reverend Doctor Munroe, head of the Project Manna Soup Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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