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Food ATMs for Refugees

United Nations' World Food Program tests food vending machines 

The Lempert Report

The United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) and World Vision International announced they will be testing food automated teller machines, or ATMs, in refugee camps. The food ATM will dispense locally sourced cereals, cooking oil and other fortified blended foods with just the swipe of a card, according to a report in U.N. Dispatch.

WFP and World Vision say the machines have the potential to “revolutionize providing food to refugees” by eliminating some of the biggest problems associated. In an email to U.N. Dispatch, World Vision’s East Africa Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs Director Chris Hoffman said that as the largest implementing partner with WFP, World Vision has found that at least 30% of food baskets given to refugees are either lost, sold or stolen. Safety concerns are also increasing as some refugees have been attacked while transporting the heavy foods they receive from distribution centers to their homes. 

The food ATM will be continuously monitored and stocked with locally procured foods that, in turn, support the local economy and cut costs immensely. It will also allow WFP to better track what kinds of food and how much of it refugees are actually using in order to make the aid more personalized. Most importantly, the long lines refugees wait in for their monthly rations will be eliminated.

The food ATM actually consists of a number of machines that each contain a specific food item (e.g., one machine for cooking oil and one machine for cereals). They will be housed in a “clean, cool warehouse” within the camp that refugees can visit whenever they want.  

In the warehouse, refugees can fill their shopping carts with as much or as little of each food item as they want within the limit of their prefunded Scope card—a WFP digital cash card that’s reloaded every month. The ease of access means that refugees can choose to only take as much food as they’re able to carry or store safely at home eliminating waste.

If all goes well during the six-month pilot in Uganda, World Vision and WFP plan to immediately launch five more food ATMs by the end of 2020 and throughout East Africa over the next two funding cycles. Their end goal is to completely disrupt the food aid system.

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