Oct. 2, 2020 10:03 am

Using tech to meet food pantry needs in Philly’s Northeast

The online platform used at the Mitzvah Food Program's food pantry was built with tools to help encourage healthy eating and easy adherence to dietary or religious preferences, says Brian Gralnick.

Mitzvah Food Program Northeast clients use a proprietary computer and tablet-based ordering system called SmartChoice to choose their food.

(Courtesy photo)

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has seen  food pantry needs increase throughout the five-county area due to COVID-19. Pantries in Norristown, for example, have seen an increase of more than 200%.

Brian Gralnick, director of social responsibility, said the Jewish Federation’s Mitzvah Food Program is also seeing an increase in the amount of times households need to come to the pantry — at one location the increase has gone up 35% weekly.

“This means that households are relying more and more on pantries to meet this very basic need,” he said. “With the likelihood of COVID not going away for at least another year, these stats will probably stay the same or go higher as more people become unemployed or stay unemployed.”

For more than seven years, Mitzvah Food Program Northeast clients have used a computer and tablet-based ordering system called SmartChoice to choose their food. It created the platform with a local IT developer — becoming the second pantry in the nation to move to a digital-ordering system.

About four years ago, the system was upgraded to enable clients to order wherever they had internet access and to schedule their own pick up time. “A handful of clients who order from home get their items delivered, which is usually based on volunteer capacity,” Gralnick said.

“Online or tablet-based ordering makes it easier for clients to choose exactly what goes into their food packages and has helped to eliminate food waste,” he aded. “The platform allows for various tools to help encourage healthy eating and easy adherence to dietary or religious preferences. The ability to filter items is significant.”

The SmartChoice online cart, showing what’s been selected from Mitzvah Food Program Northeast food pantry’s stock. (Screen capture)

This system allows for the pantry to do real-time tracking of inventory, to update client data easily, and ti ensure that clients are receiving information in real time.

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Gralnick said their model utilizes virtual dollars that are then allocated by Myplate food group. Within each food group, items are priced cheapest by health, so brown rice is 1.5 points or “dollars” while white rice is 3.0.

The Mitzvah Food Program location is open four days a week, Tuesday to Friday. Due to COVID, hours are limited for walk-up clients to pick up a pre-packed bag in the mornings and early afternoons, and for those ordering online, to pick up their orders in the afternoons.

“We have seen an overall 10% increase in households being served from last year,” Gralnick said. “However, because the program is co-located in a senior center which has been closed, we’ve had a much higher growth in new clients as opposed to overall clients.”

Clarence Silver, a 73-year-old retired Northeast Philly resident, has been utilizing the Mitzvah Food Program for about four years, and its online platform for about 15 months.

Silver said he loves the service. He first started placing food orders online “out of convenience — it is easier to do online.”

Now, he views it as “perfect with the pandemic.”

When placing his monthly order, Silver selects a pick-up time at the Klein Jewish Community Center so he can socially distance at the center. Before he started using the online platform, Silver said he would sit at the location to receive his food order.

The food available varies each month, depending on inventory. Silver said the monthly order is a “tremendous help” since he is on a fixed income. He noted the service is especially helpful to other elderly, like himself, and those from other countries.

The food bank offers a mix of perishables and nonperishables that can be ordered online. (Courtesy photo) 

Elise K., a 67-year-old retired Northeast Philly resident, has been a client of the pantry for more than five years. A few months ago, she switched to remote (with volunteer delivery) due to COVID. She is also disabled and uses a wheelchair.

Elise describes the service as quite easy; she orders a delivery online once a month and the Klein Jewish Community Center delivers the package right to her door. This is tremendously beneficial to her, she said.

Like Silver, Elise is on a fixed income so the service “has been helpful through the years.”

In addition to the mix of perishables and nonperishables from the Mitzvah Food Program, she receives a Philabundance box, as well as a box of fresh produce.

She said the produce is super fresh, and the workers who manage the program and deliver the food are extremely pleasant to deal with.


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