Clemson University students help Meals on Wheels roll with efficiency
The nearly 1,500 clients spread across Greenville County include the sick and injured, those who are recovering from surgery and senior citizens who have trouble preparing their own meals.
Unable to leave their homes on their own, they have sought the help of Meals on Wheels of Greenville. The nonprofit dispatches a corps of volunteer drivers across 126 routes five days a week to deliver meals.
Volunteer drivers are the lifeblood of the program, but connecting them with clients can be a logistical challenge. When volunteers cancel or don’t show up, there’s a scramble to find someone to pick up the route.
Four Clemson University students made it their mission to see what they could do to help. As part of an industrial engineering class, the students took an entire school year to analyze the nonprofit’s operations and figure out how it could improve its efficiency.
The students developed a mapping tool using Microsoft Excel and Google Maps to show the shortest drive times between clients. The team also analyzed massive amounts of information to determine what days of the week Meals on Wheels had the toughest time finding drivers.
As a result, the nonprofit hired a part-time driver to help cover Mondays and Fridays, when driver cancellations and no-shows are highest, said Catriona Carlisle, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Greenville.
“The students were able to take a couple of steps back and look at it in a different way,” Carlisle said. “It was really refreshing to have that youthful approach. They didn’t have any bias. They were looking at it as a clean state without any preconceived judgements.”
Kyle Hongsermeier, a junior majoring in industrial engineering, said that the project started as a way to build his resume and get some real-world experience, but all that changed after the first meeting with Meals on Wheels.
“This organization does amazing things everyday, and that in itself really drove the passion I had for this project,” Hongsermeier said. “Knowing that people in need throughout the local community were being affected by our project really helped to put it into perspective and show how big of an impact we could really have.
“I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.”
Clara Waddell, who begins studying for her master’s degree next month, said she was excited to use the skills she learned in the classroom in a real world situation.
“It was great to know that our work was going to help others, including the organization, its volunteers, and the beneficiaries receiving their meals,” she said.
The Clemson team included Hongsermeier, Waddell, Di Nguyen and Sarah Smotherman. The professor who oversaw the class was Scott Mason, the Fluor Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Optimization and Logistics.
Mason said the Meals on Wheels research was a learning tool. When students first started last August, they immersed themselves in the organization, driving routes and talking to key employees.
Mason let them work on their own in the beginning and then stepped in for about a month to show them how to come up with an action item list, deliverables and deadlines.
“The students saw what needed to be done and ran the project for themselves the last three months,” he said.
It’s critical that meals get delivered. The meals help fight the food insecurity that many of the clients face, but there’s more to the organization than food. Personal contact from the volunteers helps clients battle the loneliness and isolation from living alone.
David Stroup played a pivotal role in helping bring together the project when he was a board member at Meals on Wheels of Greenville. Stroup, who said he “bleeds orange,” graduated from Clemson with a degree corporate finance in 2005 and met Mason when he returned in 2013 to pursue a Master of Engineering degree.
Early last year, Meals on Wheels board members were discussing the need for additional drivers and the various situations that affected certain routes. They were also trying to figure out how to deliver meals to even more clients in need.
While the discussion centered on volunteer training, Stroup fell back to what he learned from Mason and the industrial engineering department. Some of the nonprofit’s challenges sounded similar to his coursework. He began wondering if routes could be condensed or otherwise made more efficient.
“After discussions with and blessing from Meals on Wheels, I reached out to Dr. Mason to see if there was indeed opportunity for Clemson’s involvement in auditing our process and offering new solutions that maybe we hadn’t considered,” Stroup said.
“Dr. Mason was just so great to work with and quickly assembled a team to meet with Meals on Wheels of Greenville. He and I had a couple back and forth calls but soon thereafter, we were off.”
Students wrapped up their research at the end of the school year. It was part of Creative Inquiry, a Clemson program that encourages students to do research while still undergraduates.
Nguyen, a junior from Greenville, said knowing the nature of the nonprofit’s work made the research more meaningful to her.
“Meals on Wheels of Greenville, the sponsors and the volunteers are the ones who feed the people,” she said. “But I am glad our team could help make the whole process easier and quicker from a planning perspective.”
Carlisle said it was great to work with Mason and his students.
“It goes to Dr. Mason and what he has built at Clemson and his department,” she said. “It was on time. They were all very professional. It was neat to see students utilizing what they learn in the classroom and making an impact on our organization.”
Stroup said he was proud to be part of the program and that Clemson brought strong team of students with incredible guidance from faculty.
“The students may not appreciate it now, but as they continue their careers into the workforce, the problem-solving skills and working knowledge they now possess will surely create even more opportunities for them throughout their careers,” Stroup said.
“I know Meals on Wheels of Greenville is stronger for having had the opportunity to work with them, and I hope Clemson’s impact leads to an even stronger relationship with Meals on Wheels and the greater Greenville community.”
Even with the new part-time driver, Meals on Wheels faces a continual need for volunteer drivers, especially in the summers when many people head out of town for vacation, Carlisle said.
To volunteer as a driver or learn about other ways to help, contact Meals on Wheels at 864-233-6565, or visit its website at www.mealsonwheelsgreenville.org/