The Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center was founded in 2010 with the hope to make New York a model for smart, fair food policy and address food insecurity across the city. But when COVID-19 worsened the city’s hunger crisis, there was a pressing problem the city had overlooked. “It came to our attention that there was no centralized resource for all the different food resources available in each neighborhood,” Melissa Gallanter, the Center’s operations manager, recalls.
Her team decided to create a citywide resource that included the location and hours of food pantries, meals for students and seniors, delivery services for people with disabilities, and resources for immigrants.
Gallanter turned to a past partner to make it happen: Jon Chin. Chin is the founder of Share Meals, which started as an app in 2009 to connect New York University students with extra meal “swipes” to other students who needed food. (College students on meal plans are often given a dining card and swipe the card at dining halls to access and pay for their meals.) “We knew there was a gap in communication across communities about resources,” Gallanter says. “Jon was able to systemize it, organize a database and build the project into a sustainable tool.”
The result of that partnership, NYC Neighborhood Food Resources Guides, is just one powerful outcome of Chin’s idea 13 years ago to build an app for food-insecure New York University students. To date, the app has been used on more than 400 campuses with over 3,500 meals shared between students. COVID-19 pushed Share Meals to go beyond the campus — Chin adapted its technology to help create resource guides across New York City as well as the state of Alabama. Now, the team is collaborating to produce a toolkit for more cities and states so they can develop food resource guides of their own.
This 13-year journey to help address food insecurity through tech began when Chin came across a student’s post on the Facebook page NYU Secrets about running out of swipes on their meal plan and not being able to afford food. “I sat down and thought about what I could do,” Chin says. “I didn’t have a lot of money; I didn’t have meal swipes, but I had a background as a software developer.” He coded the first version of Share Meals in just 24 hours.
NYU students immediately started to use the app, and a larger Share Meals community developed on campus as student leadership organized regular meetings with game nights and cooking classes. In the 2021 fall semester, Share Meals assisted 4,000 food-insecure NYU students.
Chin always envisioned the app expanding beyond NYU. “One of the things I love about technology is that it’s easily scalable,” he says. “I built the app to be easily picked up by any college student in the U.S.” Chin has forged relationships with a dozen universities that are formally supporting and publicizing the app.
But during the pandemic, college students were off-campus, and many faced food insecurity with their families. “We’ve always thought about expanding beyond the campus, and the pandemic was that last push that made us decide to do that,” Chin explains.
Chin partnered with the New York City Food Policy Center to quickly release their food resource guides. The Center handled outreach to identify which organizations and food pantries were open at what hours, which retail food stores still had hard-to-find items in stock, as well as specific resources for children, seniors, immigrants and people with disabilities. Share Meals developed the database while the Center collected datasets and then curated resources within each neighborhood.
“By the first week of April, we had put together 59 guides,” Gallanter says.
Four hundred volunteers consistently update all 59 resource guides, which cover different neighborhoods across the city and have lived on the Center’s website. This year, Chin finished integrating them all into his Share Meals app so they are easily accessible by phone. “[Now Share Meals] is both for the general public and for students,” he says. The app has roughly 9,000 users, including students, faculty and people not affiliated with the university.
Following the success with the New York City Food Policy Center, Chin reached out to Hunger Solutions Institute at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Pre-COVID, Hunger Solutions Institute used Share Meals to help address campus food insecurity. Chin wanted to know if the institute would be interested in expanding off campus. Together, they quickly decided to develop food resources guides for the entire state. “It was a mutual partnership and we sought it almost simultaneously,” says Alicia Powers, managing director of Hunger Solutions Institute.
Like in New York City, Alabama’s resources around food programs were “fragmented,” as Malerie Goodman, a graduate research assistant with the institute, puts it. “It was time-consuming to find resources addressing hunger across the state of Alabama. We realized there needed to be a hub of information so families could find this quickly and easily.”
The team and volunteers at the Hunger Solutions Institute handled the outreach, called grocery stores, food pantries and other organizations, and collected data population for the online database. Chin supported with technical assistance, connecting the institute’s team to a network of “philanthropic coders” who assisted with data mining. The Alabama guide is outlined as a county map, so people click on their county to see a list of local resources.
While both resources were developed as an emergency response to the pandemic, they have become permanent tools the organizations keep regularly updated.
Jon Chin (3rd from right) and his team at the international summit of Universities Fighting World Hunger in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Jon Chin)
About six months ago, New York City Food Policy Center, Hunger Solutions Institute and Share Meals also began collaborating on a digitalized tool kit to help other organizations. “We’re putting together best practices for other cities, states and organizations that might be interested,” says Gallanter. “Our goal is to collaborate and identify some of the common grounds,” says Goodman, which includes securing organizational support, managing volunteers and data, and developing efficient technology.
Chin’s goal is for Share Meals to provide the tool kit, software, and support for any organization, agency or group who wants to create food guides. He’s already identified potential partners for expansion and is in conversation with SUNY Geneseo, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina.
Chin has come a long way from the original idea of helping share NYU meal swipes. “It’s given shape and direction to my life,” he says of continually improving the app to serve new communities. “I’ve seen the power of what technology can do for our nonprofit and social impact spaces.”