Behind Roberto Uchoa’s work to fight hunger and strengthen food banks

“When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do, I tell them I am spending a lot of my time trying to solve hunger,” says Roberto Uchoa, a McKinsey senior partner. “And I am.”

Roberto’s work has never been more important than in this past year during the pandemic. According to Feeding America, more than 80 percent, or four in five food banks, are serving more people now than they did a year ago. And from March through October of 2020, four in 10 people visiting food banks were there for the first time.

The work of food security is meaningful to Roberto both personally and professionally: he was born and raised in Fortaleza, a town in Northeastern Brazil where he experienced drought and poverty firsthand.  “For many people, hunger was a constant,” he recalls. After earning degrees in engineering, Roberto joined McKinsey in 1997 as a business analyst in Brazil before moving to the U.S. in 2002.

A turning point in his career came around 2007. “All of my clients were trying to respond to the global food crisis brought on by a dramatic rise in food prices,” he remembers. “That time of focusing on food security brought so much meaning to my daily work that I knew this was the direction my life would take.”

Pursuing this ambition brought him to hunger-stricken areas around the world. While he loved the travel—“the variety of countries I saw in Africa was fascinating: Malawi, Liberia, Kenya”—he wanted to spend more time at home near Chicago with his young children. He eventually stopped working with foundations, multilateral organizations, and governments in Africa, and focused more on agriculture and food and beverage clients in the Midwestern U.S.

Two events eventually brought him back to food security: The first was a McKinsey Agriculture Practice meeting in 2014, at which a partner challenged the group to bring the impact our firm had achieved in Africa to the U.S., and specifically to Chicago, where 800,000 people are food insecure. The second was a McKinsey office challenge to donate one million meals to help local NGOs. This eventually led Roberto to partnering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a member of the Feeding America network that serves all of Cook County, including Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S.

McKinsey senior partner and Agriculture Practice leader Roberto Uchoa.

Over the next few years, Roberto and his team worked with the depository on a series of pro-bono projects focused on food-security issues. One of the most impactful focused on using the tremendous amounts of data the food bank collected, which included information on the movement of 74 million pounds of food annually as well as the characteristics of dozens of neighborhoods. “As you walk from one neighborhood to the next in Chicago, there is a tremendous disparity among people: in income, unemployment rates, poverty level, and life outcomes,” says Roberto. “The average life expectancy varies by more than 20 years across some neighborhoods.”

The McKinsey team used this data to build a food equity index with a dashboard that would help them better distribute resources, anticipate and plan for changes in supplies and need, and maximize volunteer availability. They also used the data to help create a customer relationship management system for working with their partners.

A McKinsey pro-bono project built capabilities among the food bank’s warehouse employees, and helped the organization find new ways to manage inventory, organize supply flows, and orchestrate distribution. Credit: Kenneth Johnson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Elsewhere, the team focused on building the capabilities of the organization’s 20-plus warehouse employees. “There was a tremendous variance in skills and experience, from highly capable high school grads to senior logistics experts on second careers,” explains Roberto. “McKinsey Academy delivered training on supply chain fundamentals, such as choosing the right indicators to create more efficiency.” Additional courses covered how to manage inventory, organize supply flows, and orchestrate distribution.

Food security and the coronavirus crisis: A view from Feeding America’s COO

Food security and the coronavirus crisis: A view from Feeding America’s COO

With the onset of COVID-19, the training was converted to a virtual format and scaled throughout the Feeding America food bank network. After successful pilots in states including Florida and Idaho, it is now ramping up to additional cities across U.S. “At the food bank in Florida, the local team rearranged the floor layout and workflow in a matter of days; usually it would take weeks,” says Roberto.

“In most transformation work, we need a ‘change story’—the rationale for rethinking processes,” he adds. “The food banks are so eager for change, they don’t need the ‘why,’ and the speed of implementation is very high. It’s incredibly inspiring for everyone involved.”

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