For many food pantries, language barriers are a common obstacle to serving a diverse client base. One food pantry in the Chicago area is taking advantage of two distinct technologies to help non-English speakers navigate the pantry, whether they are accessing it online or in person.

The West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge, Ill., is using a tablet-based system from TranslateLive to support in-person conversation in real time. It also is accommodating its online clients with software from PantrySoft that supports more than 30 languages.

The dual technologies are helping the pantry better serve the 42% of its clients who speak a language other than English. Last year, the pantry tracked about 17 languages spoken among its customers. Already, the technologies are encouraging these foreign-language speakers to more actively participate in the pantry.

Bringing more people into the emergency food network is a high priority for providers of hunger relief. Food banks and pantries are taking steps like increasing their hours of operation and providing culturally appropriate food to appeal to food-insecure people who do not yet take advantage of free food. Bringing down language barriers is another frontier in this effort.

Initially, West Suburban took steps to translate its signage, forms and other materials into the most commonly spoken languages.

“We were doing a lot to try to bridge that gap,” said Suzanne Armato, CEO. “But as much as we were doing, we weren’t able to have that authentic exchange with each other.”

That changed when staff members discovered a real-time translation device called the Instant Language Assistant, or ILA, consisting of two tablets that offer real-time translation via artificial intelligence. Unlike other translation software, ILA allows for a natural conversation between two people who speak different primary languages. “When we saw that, we really thought this could be an answer to a very big barrier that we see in our store,” Armato said.

With ILA, clients can choose their language on one of the tablets and immediately start communicating with the person on the other end. They can speak a phrase, spell words aloud, or type sentences using the onscreen keyboard to initiate a real-time translation. The device supports up to 120 different languages, including the top languages spoken by West Suburban Community Pantry’s clients — English, Spanish, Arabic, and Ukrainian.

Staff members are using ILA to greet clients, help them with the check-in and registration, and build relationships.

“Now, we can actually formally greet people and welcome them in their native language, and they’re able to communicate back to us,” Armato said. “And we can — second by second — have this conversation.”

The device is also helping to connect clients to the pantry’s other services.

“We’re able to connect and address barriers that they have. Not just with food, but all the other barriers that are impeding their quality of life.”

The pantry’s online ordering clients are also benefitting from translation capabilities available through PantrySoft, a provider of pantry management software. According to Armato, about one-third of the pantry’s customers order online instead of in person. In addition to helping pantries manage their operations, PantrySoft provides a simple online shopping experience for clients with built-in support for more than 30 languages. Clients can select from a list of languages in a drop-down menu on the website. Once they do, the entire website is instantly translated into that language.

Since switching to the new platform, the pantry has seen a 35% growth in online customers who are non-English speaking.

“We feel like that’s a great testament to the power of that secondary investment we made in order to address language as a potential barrier,” Armato said.

Along with providing language support, PantrySoft also lets the pantry track which foods people choose by demographic, allowing it to adjust its inventory accordingly and better meet cultural preferences.

The ILA costs $2,500 for two tablet-like devices and an additional $100-per-year subscription fee for translation support. PantrySoft cost the pantry about a $5,000 initial investment, though the company’s pricing is tiered based on how many people an organization serves.

Armato said that the language tools are part of a broader community-driven strategy to address hunger. The pantry operates like a free grocery store and its online ordering platform lets customers pick up their food just 30 minutes after ordering. West Suburban also partners with other organizations, including schools and a local hospital. Through its hospital partnership, doctors keep an eye out for patients who might be experiencing food insecurity. Patients who do are automatically signed up for an online order, which the pantry then delivers to their house.

Since the pantry started using ILA and PantrySoft, it has started to see even more people who speak a primary language other than English, Armato said, making the investments in the technologies well worth it.

“Our goal is to end hunger in that community,” she said. “So if this is a way that we can really get to that, then we’re happy to be providing that opportunity.”

Mike Peterson

Mike Peterson is a San Diego-based writer, editor, and strategist who is passionate about finding and telling stories that matter.

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