St. Vincent de Paul uses Toyota principles to engineer more efficient holiday food distribution

CINCINNATI -- Liz Carter knew she had a problem back in 2009.

That year, so many people showed up for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Thanksgiving food distribution that the nonprofit wasn’t finished until after 1:30 p.m.

Volunteers who thought they would finish by noon were tired. And the 800 needy people who had been standing in line for hours were tired, too.

But before the next year’s big distribution, a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer who worked for Toyota offered to help. Engineers from the Toyota Production System Support Center Inc. began working with the nonprofit’s staff to apply the automaker’s engineering principles to the food distribution process.

By 2011, St. Vincent de Paul was distributing 1,000 complete Thanksgiving meals in roughly three hours – finishing on time at noon.

“I feel like St. Vincent de Paul had the heart of helping people,” said Carter, the Cincinnati charity’s executive director. “Toyota gave us the science of helping people.”

St. Vincent de Paul has applied that science every year since to the organization’s Thanksgiving and Christmas food distributions, making small improvements after each one, said Michael Voegele, the organization’s former food pantry coordinator who now is the counseling services coordinator.

“They put the system in place, passed the torch on to us, and we’re taking it from here,” Voegele said. “Every year is better than the last.”

Steve Cook of Price Hill said he’s noticed the difference.

Cook started waiting in line at 4 a.m. Friday for this year’s Christmas food distribution, which made him the 37th person in line.

He said the distributions have been much more organized in recent years, and that has made things much calmer for the people waiting.

“I’ve got four kids at home,” Cook said. “I’ve got to make sure they eat.”

Each person in line got the choice of ham or turkey along with a can of corn, a can of either green beans or peas, two cans of carrots, two cans of fruit, a choice of either fresh carrots or fresh potatoes, a box of cornbread mix, a box of stuffing mix and one miscellaneous item, such as a cake mix, coffee or lemonade mix.

St. Vincent de Paul gave out 950 meals from the organization’s Bank Street facility Friday and another 141 from its Winton Hills outreach center. The nonprofit also has volunteers who deliver meals to needy families throughout Hamilton County.

In all, St. Vincent de Paul helped about 6,000 families in Hamilton County this year with Thanksgiving meals, Christmas meals and Christmas gifts, Carter said.

For more information about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul go to www.svdpcincinnati.org or click here .

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may .

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