Abstract: "Feeding America allocates donated food to over 200 food banks. In 2005, it transitioned from a queueing mechanism to one where food banks use a specialized currency to bid for food. Food banks chose very different food than they received before. Small food banks acquired 72% more pounds per client than large food banks at little nutritional cost. This reallocation of food is estimated to have increased its value by 21%, or $115 million per annum. Food banks also sourced food much closer, saving an additional $16 million per annum. Finally, donations of food rose by over 100 million pounds."
"The old assignment algorithm gave each food bank an equal number of (random) pounds of food per needy client. This was problematic for a variety of reasons, despite its perceived fairness. First, food banks differ in their needs. The [old assignment algorithm] allocated an average of 10% of food distributed to food banks, but Feeding America knew little about the other food. This was further complicated by food richness, where some food banks had better access to outside food donations and had different residual needs. Second, food was randomly assigned on the basis of geography, leading to high transportation costs. Third, the allocation system was slow and deterred some donations.
"Instead of equal pounds per client, the Choice System gives food banks an equal number of shares per client. These are used to bid in first-price sealed bid auctions, run twice a day. Shares can be saved and borrowed, and any shares spent on a given day are recirculated back to food banks that night. Bids can be negative, a feature used to ease donor relations. Through this mechanism, shares allow a food bank to match its purchases to both its permanent and transitory needs and to the geographic location of the donor.
"Despite the benefits that choice allows, many of the practitioners involved in the redesign were initially skeptical of a market-based system. Their concerns were primarily focused on the fear that smaller or less sophisticated food banks would suffer. To ensure equity across food banks, a series of safeguards outlined below were used, among them access to credit and the ability to bid jointly with other food banks.
"The Choice System went live on July 1, 2005. We consider a variety of outcomes from 2002 to 2011. A feature of the design is that any food bank can purchase its old allocation, assuming that food banks face common prices. As a result, all food banks are at least as well off as before. This assumes that transactions costs are low enough that all food banks engaged with Choice, and a concern raised was that smaller food banks may not do so. We show that food banks quickly engaged, bidding over 200 times a year and winning more than 70 times. Furthermore, small food banks bid more per client than do large ones. We also show that the safeguards implemented to encourage the participation of small food banks were used as intended. We then quantify how different outcomes were under Choice. "