Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma
The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma is the largest food distribution program in Tulsa, feeding over 70,000 people each week and distributing almost 16 million pounds of food each year. A significant portion of this food is delivered to the food bank in 1-2 ton “totes” (or large cardboard boxes) of bulk foods such as rice, beans, pasta, and cereal. In order to share this food with the community, volunteers at the food bank must remove this bulk food from the tote and divide it into smaller 1-lb bags. The food bank does an excellent job in handling this challenge, but the process takes several hours, allowing plenty of time for spills and contamination. In addition to these issues, the totes themselves are about 4 feet tall, making it difficult for volunteers to reach the bottom of the tote without destroying the box in the process (something the food bank does not wish to do).
The food bank provides an invaluable service to not only Tulsa, but to the state of Oklahoma as a whole. The University of Tulsa chapter of Engineers Without Borders wants to give back to the organization that gives so much to our community. We are working with the food bank to design a “bulk food bagging system” to improve the efficiency and sanitation of the bulk food redistribution. The students who are working on this project have divided the project into two segments: moving the food out of the tote and automating the weighing and resealing of the 1-lb bags.
The food bank has identified their primary concern as reaching the bottom of the tote, so our first sub-project has focused on addressing this “food transportation” issue. We are designing a system to move the bulk food from the large 1-2 ton tote to a more manageable and accessible intermediate location. The design has to be able to accommodate a variety of bulk foods without damaging the food in the process (crackers are our biggest challenge at the moment!). We have previously evaluated several different transportation techniques including conveyor belts, cranes, and augers, but our current design uses a vacuum system to move the food. The vacuum is desirable because it is able to move the food with the least moving parts and the simplest initial setup, making the design safe and easy for the volunteers to use. The vacuum pulls the food out of the large tote and delivers it to a smaller bin that will be easier for the volunteers to access. If this smaller bin is placed next to the weighing and resealing table, this will eliminate the risk of spilling when the food is carried from the tote to the aforementioned table. This design also eliminates the need for volunteers to lean over the sides of the tote to reach the food, potentially contaminating the food in the process.
The second segment of our project will assist with measuring and resealing the 1-pound bags. This design will improve measurement error and ensure that each bag is closer to the desired 1-lb specification. It will also minimize the chance for spilling and wasting the bulk food. The design for this segment is still in the brainstorming phase, and will likely remain so until the food transportation project has been completed and implemented by the food bank. This part of the design may be as simple as providing calibrated scoops that “weigh out” 1 pound of food based upon its density. It may also be as complex as a fully automated system that weighs and seals each 1-pound bag by itself. Due to the fact that the food bank wants volunteers to remain involved in the bagging process, the final design will likely fall between these two extremes. Either way, we want the “food measurement” design to be compatible with the “food transportation” project so that our second design can be easily implemented without redesigning the first segment of our project.
We will provide updates here as this project develops so that you can follow our progress. We hope to have images and videos available in the near future so that you can see the work that we’ve done so far. If you have any comments or questions about our project, please feel free to contact project leads Mitchell Trafford ([email protected]) or Tim Brown ([email protected]). We are able to fund this project through university grants and donations from the community; if you are interested in supporting this project, click here to donate and help EWB and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma provide food for thousands of families in Oklahoma!