Global delivery: Request system helps USDA deliver food

Project at a glance

Who: Farm Service Agency's Commodity Systems Office in Kansas City, Mo.

Mission: Automate entry of commodity requests, and ultimately integrate commodity bids, freight bids and bid evaluation under the Food Aid for Humanitarian Assistance programs

What was: Paper fax orders

What is: A Web system that uses IBM VisualAge for Java, WebSphere Studio, HTML, JavaScript, Microsoft Windows NT and IBM WebSphere Server

Users: United Nations World Food Program, 92 private volunteer organizations worldwide, Agency for International Development, State Department, USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service and Farm Service Agency

Impact: FARES/COS speeds up purchase and distribution of emergency food. It lets emergency response groups create, transfer and review commodity requests electronically, completing electronic bid receipts in nearly real time. The system improves USDA efficiency.

Duration: The project took two years to complete and went live in January.

Cost: $400,000 for in-house system development

'Under the paper system, when the paper order left your office, you didn't know where it was in the system, or even if it was there.'

'Agriculture's David Liem

Henrik G. de Gyor

These developers at the Farm Service Agency's Commodity Systems Office built FARES to streamline food aid distribution.

Courtesy of the Farm Service Agency

An automated food aid request system developed by an Agriculture Department office in Kansas City, Mo., helps relief organizations deliver billions of dollars' worth of food more quickly to foreign areas devastated by war and poverty.

The Farm Service Agency's Commodity Systems Office implemented the Food Aid Request Data Entry System in January. FARES automates the processing of orders for the department's Foreign Food Aid for Humanitarian Assistance programs.

FARES replaced a system under which government, development and relief agencies exchanged paper forms in a slow and unwieldy process to order, approve and transfer requests for food distributed for humanitarian purposes.

Besides saving time, FARES increases data accuracy and improves information security, said DeWayne Kalberg, chief of the Farm Service Agency's Commodity Systems Office in Kansas City.

Ninety-two program sponsors use FARES to order food for export, including the United Nations' World Food Program, the Agency for International Development, USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service and Farm Service Agency, and numerous private volunteer agencies such as Catholic Relief Services. USDA's Export Operations and Bulk Commodities divisions use FARES to streamline commodity procurement and planning.

The Farm Service Agency acquires more than $2 billion worth of food annually for USAID and the Foreign Agricultural Service to export under humanitarian food aid programs. Last year, USAID responded to 75 disasters in 60 countries.

FARES combines the processes formerly accomplished on paper, which snaked through the internal channels of several offices, into a single transaction that is basically a routing system, said Dave Liem, a team leader at the Commodity Systems Office.
For example, a volunteer group such as Catholic Relief Services sends a food order to USAID. The order goes to the Farm Service Agency in Washington, which routes it to the FSA export operation in Kansas City, which procures the food. Once the order is processed, either by purchasing from a vendor or putting out a solicitation, the order travels back through the same channels to obtain the various agencies' approvals.

Homes in on orders

These steps combine under FARES' online routing so that all participants can see the data and the progress of the order, from initial entry throughout the supply line.

The group that places the order can determine where it stands in the pipeline'whether it is still in Washington, has become part of a solicitation bid or has been purchased, said Ethel Bowers, contract and allocation group chief at the Commodity Systems Office.

'Under the paper system, when the order left your office, you didn't know where it was or even if it was in the system,' Liem said.

The visibility provided by the online system lowers costs for delivering commodities.

USDA agencies can better coordinate their food purchases based on changes in vendor supplies and sponsor demand, Kalberg said.

The automated system has reduced the time spent by marketing specialists reviewing the food requests, investigating errors and waiting for the completion of paper commodity requests, he said.

Real-time, online visibility also increases data reliability and accuracy by eliminating the paper forms. Sometimes they were lost and had to be faxed several times and then followed up by phone, Kalberg said.

In contrast, FARES data can be corrected online as soon as inaccuracies are found.

The secure Web system is designed to limit access to commodity request data to those who need to know, while making request entry and approval more efficient.

Under the paper system, the Farm Service Agency staff could not follow the orders in the pipeline.

'We couldn't see what was coming before it got to us. So if everything came at once, we couldn't find the best price for the food,' Bowers said.

'We were spending more taxpayer dollars to buy food. If we had known the orders were coming, we could have spread it out and maybe bought in expectation of the orders,' she said.

Currently, the agency has an electronic system that accepts bids for food commodities. It plans to integrate that system with FARES and ultimately with contractors and USDA finance offices by 2005, Bowers said.

FARES is part of the Commodity Operations System, comprised of nine subsystems designed to automate the export commodity procurement process.

The Commodity Operations System will provide a secure online channel for agencies and businesses to receive commodity requests and learn about port constraints for loading, commodity bids and ocean freight costs for transportation.

COS, written in Java, connects to both the USDA intranet and the Internet via an IBM WebSphere application server running under Microsoft Windows NT. The data supporting the application resides in an object-oriented DB2 Universal Database.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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