Anthony Unger, a graduate student in business administration, collects and analyzes customer data to improve cost and space efficiency at the Lutheran Social Services Food Pantry. Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Miller

Anthony Unger graduated from Ohio State in 2012 with a degree in chemical engineering and a job at tire company Bridgestone.

Six years after graduation, Unger found his way back to Ohio State with the goal of giving back to the community and expanding his career beyond chemistry. 

Unger, a graduate student in business administration, said he was introduced to Lutheran Social Services Food Pantry through Fisher Board Fellows, a student-run organization at the Fisher College of Business. Now, Unger is using his skills in data analysis to make the food pantry more efficient.  

“I saw it as a really nice opportunity to do something beyond the classroom, connect to the outside community and use some of my experience in the business world to make an impact,” Unger said.

Each of the program’s 30 members is paired with a nonprofit to work with during the second year of their graduate program. Unger said LSS was his top choice.

Jennifer Fralic, director of LSS, said the pantry serves 12 counties and more than 4,000 families per month and is moving toward becoming more time and cost efficient.

“The projects that we’re working on with Anthony is a remodeling of our facilities to enable us to be more efficient and effective in providing emergency food to our community,” Fralic said.

To shop at the food pantry, Fralic said a family must be at or below twice the federal poverty level, which is $26,200 for a family of four, according to the federal government. From there, clients create a family profile online and list the number of people and their ages in the household in order to determine how many points they will receive to use on items at the pantry.

With an online ordering system implemented in 2018, Fralic said clients can order nonperishable items online for pick up at the distribution centers. Once clients arrive at the pantry to pick up, they can shop for perishable items as well.

Unger, the only person who helps the pantry with data and operations, said though the online ordering system is a great system, it is hard to collect data.

“The dashboards on there aren’t very intuitive,” Unger said. “But there’s the opportunity to export all of that data.”

Unger said he exports the data into Microsoft Excel, analyzes it and comes up with insights regarding the most popular among 66 nonperishable products and how quickly they move off of the shelves, thereby increasing efficiency for the pantry.

“We can use the data to focus on those items moving forward, so that we can most effectively and efficiently get those items in and make sure that they’re available for the customers,” Unger said.

Unger said the data is also helpful in determining the next-best items to offer when certain products are out of stock.

“It’s rare,” Fralic said. “I can’t think of another food pantry that actually maintains a live accounting of their inventory.” 

The goal of the initiative is to better serve the customer, Unger said.

“The things that we can do to be more operationally efficient and improve the process flow potentially can get the customer in and out of the food pantry faster, and they have a better experience, instead of sitting in the pantry waiting for things that they need,” he said.

Unger said this also saves the pantry time and money because it can now calculate the most cost-efficient time to reorder an item. 

With limited space in the warehouse that houses the products, Fralic said the new system has been very efficient.

“By knowing what clients purchase through Anthony’s analysis of how fast items move, we’re maximizing the space and making sure we have the items they want in stock,” Fralic said.