Dispelling loneliness. Building community. Helping college students share extra meal swipes with hungry classmates. Yep: There’s an app for that!
When Jon Chin was a grad student at New York University in 2013, he happened upon a Facebook page where students anonymously posted their secrets. He would have kept scrolling, but one post in particular caught his eye: A classmate wrote that he was having trouble obtaining food. Chin himself had faced food insecurity as a child, and remembered drinking water to quell hunger. The post, he says, made him nauseous.
Adjunct Lecturer in the English Department, City University of New York (CUNY)
MA in English Education and Machine Learning, MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry), BA in English, minor in Computer Science
Piqued, Chin continued to follow the online chat and, after some weeks, he saw new posts from additional students admitting they were not getting enough to eat, either. Then, something extraordinary happened. “Other students started to reply, saying, ‘I have extra meal swipes. Send me a message and I’ll swipe you to give you a meal,’” says Chin. “And I saw that as an opportunity to really innovate and help build something bigger.”
Utilizing his software development skills, Chin sat down to create an app that would connect hungry students with classmates who had extra meal swipes to share. He promised himself he would not leave his desk until he had a functioning application—and 24 hours later, the Share Meals prototype emerged.
Although the platform was basic and simple, it worked. Chin says the initial response exceeded his expectations. “People loved it. We launched in the last week of the school year, and in just seven days, we raised 800 meal swipes [for] 400 [requests].”
Why are college students going hungry?
Before he created Share Meals, Chin learned that some students had just $25 for two weeks’ worth of groceries, and when their funds ran out, they skipped meals (some even going a whole day without food). When asked why so many students face food insecurity, Chin replied that it “goes back to the larger issue of college affordability. We might be making great strides in scholarships and lowering tuition, but there are other costs associated with going to college that aren’t necessarily on your tuition budget.”
He explained how, for a lot of students, college is their first experience away from home. They do not know how to budget or shop for bargains. Their hectic schedules can make it difficult to maintain a part-time job, so that paycheck may dwindle or disappear. At NYU, these challenges are compounded by the high cost of living in New York, which is one of the highest in the country.
Chin says Share Meals “fills in a lot of gaps that universities have when it comes to serving students who are food insecure.”
Share Meals: How Hunger gave us Purpose - TEDxMU
How Share Meals works
Chin modeled the Share Meals real-time map display after those on the Uber and Lyft apps, so students can easily find one another: If a user wants to share meal swipes, she logs in, and her location will show up immediately.
Students with spare meal points can choose to offer them all at once or over time. And the platform also features a list of upcoming local events where free food will be available to hungry students.
Currently, Share Meals serves students at NYU and Columbia University in New York and Rutgers University in New Jersey, with plans to steadily expand to other campuses (for example, the organization is currently pushing its initiative at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama).
Since the Share Meals prototype launched, Chin earned a master’s degree in creative writing and poetry from Brooklyn College; has begun a degree program at NYU; and has become an adjunct lecturer in English at City University of New York, teaching innovative lessons such as one that draws on students’ skills in critical analysis and tattoo art. Chin has simultaneously continued to iterate and refine his app’s platform to improve user experience and build stronger privacy control.
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Attacking food insecurity by building community
Here are some lessons Chin has learned that may help anyone seeking to fulfill a hidden need in their community, particularly in a university setting:
Dispel stigma and isolation by changing the language
After teaching at the university level for eight years, Chin has found that a lot of the students he interacts with feel incredibly isolated and lonely. Even at a school like NYU, which is located in one of the biggest cities in the world, “social isolation is still a huge issue,” he says. Because of this, Share Meals’ mission is not just to end food insecurity among students but to tackle isolation, as well. And for some students, stigma and shame are an added burden in their already disheartening situation of being hungry, making it even more challenging to connect with others.
When asked how he attacks both at once, Chin replies that they are not necessarily two completely different things. He goes on to explain how, many times, students who are food insecure might have access to resources to help them, but “there’s this huge wall of stigma, and they don’t want to draw further attention to themselves by accepting resources or help.”
To maintain and uphold the dignity of all the students who use the app, Chin and his team take great care with the language they use in and around the platform. The meals given are not “donations” or “leftovers.” Rather, the Share Meals experience is about two students (soon to be friends, Chin hopes) meeting together over lunch. “It’s a form of building community and making new friends,” Chin explains.
The app even allows the “sharers” to leave a short note saying something like, “I’m vegetarian, but you don’t have to be.” Chin explains that the idea behind this is “to add some character and break the ice,” as you would in other social situations.
This strategy carries powerful weight and is evidenced by some life-changing relationships that developed as a result. “There have been some romantic connections [formed through the platform],” says Chin. While other students have formed “such great friendships by sharing meal swipes that they stopped using the app [altogether] and just meet up with that person for lunch every week.”
“We are rich only through what we give.”— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Keep costs low by doing your homework
When solving the problem of student hunger, doing it via an online platform is arguably the most effective way to make it happen. For one thing, it is much cheaper than alternative options like opening a food pantry, which Chin says can cost upwards of $30,000 per year. Share Meals required a cost outlay of only about $250 to create a comparable impact.
You do not need to know how to write computer code to create such a platform (though it certainly does not hurt); however, having a baseline idea of how you want the app to function is important in keeping costs manageable. “I’ve seen a lot of students and entrepreneurs try to get into this space and end up wasting a ton of money paying someone to develop their software,” says Chin. By having a clear list of requirements (of what the app should accomplish, look like, and so on), the creator can do “gut checks” with developers to ensure that the project stays on track and on budget.
Protect user privacy by limiting scope
Unlike food pantries or government assistance, Share Meals protects the anonymity of all of its users: When two students meet for lunch, it is not easy for others to tell whose swipes were used to pay for the meals. To the observer, one friend is simply treating another to lunch.
While friendly communication and community building are embedded in the app’s mission, it still retains strict privacy controls with features such as these:
- When creating an account, students must register with their “.edu” email address to verify that they are enrolled in a university. Additionally, only students who attend the same school get matched up.
- There is the option to block particular users, if a student feels the need to do so.
- A chat feature embedded in the app means that students do not need to make their emails public to be able to communicate.
Spread the news by forming partnerships
One of the key features to successfully run a campus initiative is to have strong partnerships with all potential stakeholders, which may include students, student groups, faculty, food pantries, and even administrators of relevant Facebook pages. All of these can play a role in getting the word out to students who can benefit from or help with your program.
Chin notified the administrator of the private Facebook group where he first heard of students who were hungry. The administrator loved the initiative and alerted the private Facebook community immediately.
Faculty also play a critical role because of their direct access to students. Often, they have a strong idea of who in their classroom is hungry, but as Chin says, “in the past they felt powerless. But they would do some Google searching, find out about our programs, and reach out. They work with us to increase our outreach to both students and other faculty and continue to support in the ways they can.”
Ensure continuity by keeping good records
To market and coordinate on-the-ground activities, Share Meals relies on student ambassadors who are mostly recruited via word of mouth. One problem Chin cites with student-driven initiatives is related to continuity: The project may go really well for the first two years, and the person who started it often has a lot of passion and energy, but that can fizzle when he or she graduates.
To ensure seamless transfer of knowledge and resources from one graduating class to the next, Chin recommends “documenting everything.” This means recording all communication between groups in Word or Google docs, writing down key steps and processes (and amending them each year, as they are perfected), and keeping track of contributions from external partners and groups.
Foster empathy by focusing on stories
Other initiatives, like #realcollege, garner stories from students who experience food and housing insecurity, notes Chin. This helps bring forth a true and genuine representation of what the college experience is like for all students, not just those who are economically privileged. The value of this, Chin explains, is that it builds “more empathy and [fosters] connections, while giving strength to the students who are food insecure [and may otherwise have] felt ashamed about talking about their experience.”
Branch out by considering tangential needs
Chin’s social impact work extends beyond just the app. “We also recognize there are other players on our campus who also help,” he says. For example, NYU does not have a food pantry where students can get items to eat at home. Last year, he helped organize a large packathon in which approximately 20 volunteers packaged 10,000 meals (7,000 of which went to NYU directly) that were “shelf-stable [up to two years], nutritionally balanced, and delicious.” The group has also packed short-term sandwich meals about half a dozen times: In these initiatives, they put together about 100–150 sandwiches and left them in community refrigerators around campus.
Beyond that, Chin has also helped establish The Open Kitchen community cooking classes, which teach students foundational skills such as how to use kitchen tools, practice food safety, shop for ingredients on a budget, and make nutritional choices. In each class, students cook for an hour and then sit down to eat the resulting dishes in a “giant family-style dinner.” This class was so popular and effective that NYU’s Office of Sustainability is now looking to adopt it as an official initiative of the university.
Looking to the future
On a personal level, creating Share Meals has been a “huge, major event” in Chin’s life—one that showed him how coding can be used for significant social impact. He uses his experience as a reference point to teach software engineers to be more “socially minded.” He even piloted a class at The Cooper Union in Summer 2018 called Computer Science and Entrepreneurship for Social Good.
Chin says he plans to continue working to bringing Share Meals to more colleges and universities. And he will soon attend a summit hosted by Universities Fighting World Hunger, where students, administrators, and faculty from all over the world convene for two days to network and share best practices.
Finally, Chin is in the process of developing the Share Meals Smart Pantry, a specialized vending machine to give universities a low-cost entry point to establishing a food pantry—or to extend the service area of universities with existing food pantries; the prototype is planned to be deployed at Hunter College in New York in 2019.
Note: Chin will be presenting at SXSW EDU 2019.