Prototyping to Fight Hunger

~4 min read

Designing a solution to a common human problem sounded like fun. So this Fall I signed up for Introduction to Human Centered Design. (Ideo+Acumen offer free courses around social design challenges.) Sarah, Nicole, and Erin also signed up. Together we formed a team and chose How might we provide healthier food options to people in need? from the predefined course challenges. We brainstormed, created prototypes, and tested our solutions.

But, as we learned, creating a prototype is much easier than testing it.

Hunger isn’t a hidden issue, but it does result in shame:

Only those who have run out of options obtain food from emergency sources, as a last resort. This forced giver-receiver relationship alienates the hungry from the rest of society,and makes them feel shame and distress about their food insecurity.1

This shame made it difficult for us to locate people willing to test our prototypes.

What are the real limitations? Time, money, distance, energy levels, accessibility? How can people with limited resources enjoy balanced meals that include fresh produce? (Later we explored what choice and enjoyable meals might mean. How would these factors help people eat healthier?)

We wanted to talk with people affected by the issue. Sarah contacted The Women’s Lunch Place near Pearson. This food pantry serves women with a traumatic past; they didn’t want us to talk to their clients. I reached out to my sister who runs Toni’s Kitchen: Anne recommended vegetable gardens and we discovered that several local food pantries also have supplemental gardens. But, we’d made little progress, and time was running out.

Fortunately, my inner city religious education class was a captive audience. I moved my end-of-year growing project to the Fall. Together my class and I tested my gardening prototype. We easily grew microgreens in recycled egg cartons. (Microgreens have a high nutritive value, are inexpensive and portable.) We hit a few snags along the way, but most students excitedly engaged in the three week growth process. What the students didn’t do was eat the greens! (In my role as religious ed teacher, my focus isn’t on nutrition or hunger. I also didn’t engage their parents.)

Meanwhile, Erin volunteered at a local food pantry. She taught us about some of the challenges of cooking donated food. Some of the donations were fresh and some came from cans or jars, but the variety didn’t always add up to recipes. Sarah explored Erin’s findings and set up a Healthy Eating for Cheap Pinterest board. As we studied the options, our conversation moved to the pros and cons of beans, frozen food, and tofu.

As we neared the end of the course, I took another look at food pantries. What a maze of requirements: IDs, gender, times and locations…. Finding meals and food pantries was a patchwork, difficult effort! In other words—people can’t show up at any food location and get food. To help people navigate the maze, I created a FoodPantry chatbot. This bot uses identified gender and day of the week to help people locate a nearby food pantry. People can also search for volunteer opportunities using this bot:

Nicole prototyped a solution to match contributors with people in need: Tendril by freshdirect offers donors a convenient way to buy a meal for a family in their neighborhood. Families choose their own healthy and enjoyable meals. Contributors get the pleasure of direct giving. Both sides remain anonymous—no shame involved! We think Nicole’s prototype serves our goals and hungry people best. The only caveat is that we ran out of time to test it, which we hope to do in the next course.

Working together as a team and balancing work and learning wasn’t always easy: While Sarah and I work together on the same writing team, we didn’t know Erin. Even though Erin is a UX designer who works only a few desks away. None of us knew Nicole, a project manager in the NY metropolitan area. It was our different areas of expertise, skill sets and thinking that helped us to bond. They also pulled us through some challenging weeks when nothing we did seemed to work.

Together, we learned a great deal about hunger—Nicole and Sarah’s prototypes show us that giving food can preserve human dignity! On a personal level, I’m rethinking the communication around my microgreens prototype. I’ve also started carrying granola bars for those in need… This has led to what I hope is a mutually beneficial dialogue between me and Gwen who spends her nights in a doorway a few blocks from Pearson.

See our presentation deck (password required) Inception to Product.

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