Young Innovators: Getting Food to Those in Need

Gordon Institute students’ startup FoodEase hopes to help communities struck by natural disasters
Christina Holman, Lee Ann Song, Ashton Stephens, Earn Khunpinit, and Sai Wang. Tufts Gordon Institute students’ startup FoodEase hopes to help communities struck by natural disasters
FoodEase team members, from left, Christina Holman, Lee Ann Song, Ashton Stephens, Earn Khunpinit, and Sai Wang. “All of us on the team find it heartbreaking to see people who are hungry because of failures in food delivery and storage,” said Holman.
May 14, 2020

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“Young Innovators” is an occasional series showcasing Tufts students and alumni who are turning opportunities and ideas into new and original products and programs.

Homes reduced to rubble by tornadoes, neighborhoods flooded by historic storms surges, and thousands of lives claimed by hurricanes—the news offers unrelenting reminders that natural disasters upend lives without warning, leaving communities scrambling to provide basic necessities—including access to food and water.

The startup FoodEase offers an integrated solution that combines grassroots preparedness training for community networks with a versatile digital dashboard that identifies who needs food, where they are, and how to get it.

It’s the brainchild of Christina Holman, Earn Khunpinit, Lee Ann Song, Ashton Stephens, and Sai Wang—all students in the Master of Science in Innovation and Management program at the Tufts Gordon Institute. FoodEase recently tied for second place in the social impact category of the $100k New Ventures competition, hosted by the Gordon Institute’s Entrepreneurship Center at the School of Engineering.

As  Holman describes in the team’s pitch, FoodEase leverages existing social media tools and mapping technologies with disaster relief planning and training to create informed, fast-acting food “hubs” that identify needs and critical resources: perhaps one person wants to offer a truck, a grocery store is donating fruit and vegetables, or a school is opening their kitchen.

This kind of information “is already out there, but in unstructured forums and messy threads,” Holman said. “Community leaders and volunteers have told us they want a simpler way to sort and analyze these ways of messaging.”

Holman, a Wellesley College graduate, and Song, a Harvard graduate, recently spoke with Tufts Now to share more about the FoodEase mission, and how, given the context of the COVID-19 health crisis, it is more relevant than ever.

Tufts Now: What is it about working on food delivery systems interested you?

Lee Ann Song: We started throwing ideas on a whiteboard and food storage and delivery was one of the first problems that came up. Then during winter break, I read We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, by José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen. When I shared his inspiring work with the group, we all had the same thought: What if we could model pop-up disaster relief? It would be meaningful to us and we could really tackle it from different angles.

Christina Holman: It resonated with me because I like connecting tech with social good; we wanted to use mobile technology to reach more people. All of us on the team find it heartbreaking to see people who are hungry because of failures in food delivery and storage.

How did you get a picture of what needed to change?

Holman: We interviewed survivors, volunteers, and humanitarian organizations and found that there were three “pain points”: unpreparedness, lack of data sharing and coordination between NGOs, and overlooked local resources. We’ve seen the human desperation, suffering, and death that happens in that kind of chaos.

FoodEase takes a comprehensive pre-planning approach, which includes a community-based pre-planning and training program, gathering geographical information about food hubs and best delivery routes—what’s also known as supply chain management—and data aggregation and data visualization. These tools need to work together if we are going to be prepared for the uncertainty of a world impacted by climate change.

When you prepared your pitch for the $100k competition, climate change provided a framework for your case. Now the COVID-19 health crisis brings new stresses, including enormous pressure on community food pantries. Can you comment on this new context?

Holman: There was essentially no planning for COVID-19 and food distribution. We had not asked key questions: How do we refine and understand what is relief? What does recovery look like when things start to open back up? So right now, we’re taking this opportunity to gather a lot of information to identify gaps.

We recently talked with a New York startup where two college students organized young people to deliver meals to the home-bound elderly. We’re trying to still figure out where we may be able to add value with that kind of pop-up. We envision adding it to existing systems, because it fits well with one of our central solution components—the planning piece.

There does seem to be a big gap between planning and execution of an efficient food distribution. How do you close that gap?

Song: I was talking to the head chef at Facebook offices in Boston, and he said that going forward, one of the biggest shifts that will be required will be to think local, local, local. That theme is supported by other research as well. We’ve done hundreds of customer and expert interviews—we interview ten-plus people every week—and by far, unanimously, we hear that when disaster hits, people will first turn to their neighbors for help. That’s why we are convinced that local is the way to go. These are the people who care about you the most.

Holman: The general takeaway is that governments and centralized operations can’t respond quickly because of red tape, so the best response is the local response. That’s why the first and primary FoodEase user group is made up of community leaders. That includes religious leaders, local education leaders—principals, teachers—and those who run neighborhood councils. As leaders of their community hubs, they become the FoodEase point people. They facilitate training and share the plug-in for information and resources with their community members and their neighborhoods.

Again, this come back to what we found in our research. One of the most eye-opening interviews we had was a group of people who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston. They had a Facebook group that had more than 100,000 people.

So when you think about when things get hit, people are very creative and resilient. The fact that there aren’t systems in place right now is frustrating. I’m hoping that, not just in COVID-19, but as we go further, people start to pay more attention to the people on the ground, because it’s people on the ground who do a lot of work.

 Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.