September 22

Mark Brennan

Thinking Outside the Bag: Bringing Together Private Packaging Firms, Public Procurement to Feed More Hungry People

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) buys more than 1 million tons of international food aid valued at about $1.5 billion from small and large businesses. It is brought across the ocean, through warehouses, and eventually into the homes of more than 45 million people in places like Ethiopia and Afghanistan. But how this food aid is packaged has not been revisited in decades.

Packaging that can protect food aid from hot temperatures, insects and high humidity has the potential to save money and ensure more aid ends up in the hands of those that need it most. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) conservatively estimates that 1 percent of all food aid shipped every year is lost to factors like spoilage or physical damage. That’s enough to feed about 200,000 families for a month — $15 million lost each year.

This summer, USAID, USDA and American packaging companies are running an experiment with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, where I work as a researcher) to understand which kinds of food aid packaging may better prevent spoilage. Each kind of packaging will help us learn something new. Some types of packaging have the potential to protect food from humidity; others may rely on more efficient bagging and handling processes. As it is shipped, we will measure the quality of the food to determine how well the packaging protects it from hot temperatures, insects and high humidity.

The study has the potential to change how much, to where, and when the United States sends food aid. Better packaging could not only mean less food lost to spoilage, it could mean that aid efforts need not be limited by what food may spoil en route. With better food packaging, the United States can send aid to more people in more places around the globe.

And yet, despite the potential life-saving outcomes of such a study, these kinds of initiatives are few and far between. The public sector is not known for innovation and learning: experimentation is often perceived as risky. Understandably, departments and agencies like USDA and USAID want to avoid failure: failure to effectively deliver something as critical as food aid, or failure to put U.S. tax dollars to good use.

In the case of our study, there were three key ingredients that enabled us to reduce this risk and bring the experiment to life: dedicated financial support, an academic perspective, and a clear value proposition for both public and private partners.


Typical food bags used today, in a USAID warehouse in Texas.

Financial support for public sector innovation is critical. In 2012, USAID created the U.S. Higher Education Solutions Network, an entity dedicated to accelerating innovation through new approaches like MIT’s technology evaluation program. The unique financial support from the network allowed MIT researchers to work with food aid packaging suppliers on the cutting edge of the private packaging sector. Without this dedicated funding, this partnership would not have come to fruition.

We brought together a range of packaging solutions from the grain storage sector in Uganda to a large chemical company in the United States. Additionally, this experiment will identify future ways to bring together the public and private sectors through research. The USDA even highlights this use of external stakeholders in its current strategic plan, and recently external reviewers from Tufts and Cornell Universities have successfully answered other questions at the intersection of the private and public sectors in food aid procurement.

All partners must find value in the potential outcome. With better packaging, USDA and USAID could be less burdened by managing and monitoring food aid, availing more time and money to directly support beneficiaries. At the same time, MIT is gaining wider insights into public procurement that may be applicable to other food aid programs and lead to more applied research.

Packaging companies see a market – on the order of 20 million bags a year – that has multiple bottom lines. Likewise, managers of food aid suppliers – ranging from large mills to small businesses as well as ocean carriers – worked hard all summer to rethink how they fill and ship bags. With an open mind, many experimented with different types of packaging that may prove to be better for them and beneficiaries, as well as other types of packaging that may prove to be cumbersome and ultimately impractical.

With these three critical ingredients in place, we drove innovation in the American packaging sector. For example, one company worked with us to apply a special compound that controls insect growth in a variety of bag types – a first for that firm.

Convening public and private sectors for humanitarian and development outcomes can reduce costs, improve government services, and—in our case—increase the food access of thousands of people each year.

Statutory and financial support for partnerships that introduce this innovation and learning are necessary. The recently passed Global Food Security Act of 2016 calls for grants and cooperative agreements, like the USAID-MIT agreement that made this study possible, in implementing the United States’ global food security strategy. Although the 2018 Farm Bill seems far away, the legislation is another vehicle to support partnerships that could continue to introduce public-private innovation in procurement. With the support for future partnerships, there may be similar alignments of funding, expertise and agency need to continue to improve public procurement. In the case of USDA, better procurement has the potential to get more food to people who need it.


Main photo: The bagging process in an East African port, where temperatures routinely surge above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. All photos courtesy of MIT.

Mark Brennan is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics and the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation.


Agriculture, Technology
innovation, public-private partnerships