Improving Systems for a Healthy Community

Texas State Bobcats are known for being community-oriented hard workers, and a student team is proving that reputation through their work with a local food bank. The group’s name, F.E.E.D., stands for “Food Efficiently Effectively Distributed.”

The project started during the communication design program’s annual hackathon, an event that brings together students from that major along with business and computer science majors in order to tackle problems through interdisciplinary collaboration. The theme for 2018 was food insecurity. During the hackathon, student teams made assumptions about possible problems to focus on for this learning experience, but after the event was over, the group that would become F.E.E.D. wanted to work directly on a true community issue.

Cedrik Chavez, digital media innovation senior, explains that the group approached the Hays County Food Bank (HCFB) to see where they could be useful: “We said, ‘We want to help you in any way possible. What do you need help with?’”

The answer to that question was inventory management — tracking and understanding how much food comes in, goes out, when and where.

Defining the Problem

Like many nonprofit organizations, the Hays County Food Bank does a huge amount of good while running on rather little: little time, little money, little resources. When the food bank was founded in 1984, it served only San Marcos; today, it serves the entire county, but its inventory system hadn’t caught up — everything was done by hand, on paper. That’s almost 150,000 pounds of donated food each year, tallied up on paper sheets. It needed a better system, and F.E.E.D. was eager to help.

First, the students did research to understand the food bank’s operation. For a semester, they volunteered at HCFB, getting firsthand experience in the organization’s day-to-day activity. They spoke with food bank staff and got a sense of how the staff and volunteers work together in different roles to complete the logistical tasks of distributing food to people across the county. “Those who have volunteered have given more time and energy than we expected to try to understand the underlying issues and challenges we face every day,” says Mallory Best, HCFB communications coordinator.

a shelving unit with canned goods

Finding Solutions

The students knew that whatever they created needed to be feasible (for them to make and for HCFB to implement) and scalable (something that, while tailored to HCFB, could easily be adjusted for use by other food banks as well). Having seen the paper-based inventory system that HCFB was currently using, F.E.E.D. thought they could make a big difference by developing an app that would streamline the collection of this data and automate some of the functions.

“We wanted to reduce the administrative burden and increase the accuracy of the data,” says Stephanie Long, master’s student in communication design. “We’re hoping that the time saved helps them focus on more important things” — such as all of HCFB’s work on directly providing food, along with its fundraising events and food drives.

“For a little while we went into proposal mode,” recalls Zachary Turov, a junior marketing major. They drafted a written business plan, created a presentation and drew up a budget.

Junior José Meza, an economics major with a minor in international business, has been looking at the big-picture goals. “I constantly asked myself how our F.E.E.D. app aligns with the business model at the Hays County Food Bank and what we can do to improve it.”

woman sharing a computer screen with another woman
students around a table with computers
student with a glass board behind him

In addition to making data entry simpler, the app is intended to make it smarter as well. After food bank staff collect the raw numbers related to inventory, they must still make strategic decisions about which food, and how much, to send to which location, or how long it can be stored at the main facility. Josh Avery, a sophomore majoring in computer information systems and applied math, describes these decisions as “mostly based on staff experience,” built up over years of doing this work every day, in contrast to plugging numbers into an equation. F.E.E.D. wants to define these mental algorithms and program them into the app. Then, says McKenna Strain, communication design senior, “The algorithms that they’ve been working with, we’ll have machine learning regression.” In other words, the system will use its archive of data, combined with each new data point, to recognize patterns and adapt its decision-making calculations. The app will help HCFB optimize how it's managing its inventory.

“The students have been very flexible with us and have shown a genuine interest in helping us with our need,” says Best. “They’ve reworked the design and power of the app so that we can get the most functionality out of it. We believe it will also be much easier to train our staff and volunteer drivers who use this data regularly.”

Building a system like this is a multi-step process. “Right now we’re user-testing our prototype,” explains Long, the design grad student. “We got together and mapped out the steps [in the inventory process], very detailed — step one, you open the door, and so on.” Every little task, no matter how small, needs to be accounted for in the app (either implicitly or explicitly) so that the users’ experience makes sense and so that the app can be an effective tool.

close up of the team's app on an ipad
students watching a client use their app
view of a testing sheet

Taking the Next Steps

After user testing, the team will dive deeper into the app’s back-end functionality, making sure that it is programmed properly to achieve results. F.E.E.D. will continue adjusting the app until they’re confident that it’s ready to hand off to the food bank for use this summer. The team is excited about how the app will impact HCFB going forward, both in its direct service to clients and in growing as an organization.

“One of the things a solid inventory management system lets them do is apply for grants,” explains Avery. Grantors in this field usually need detailed data about things like the amount of food being distributed or thrown out, and the F.E.E.D. app will make that information readily available.

Throughout this project, three faculty advisors have been providing guidance to the F.E.E.D. team: Janet Hale, assisting with business topics; Grayson Lawrence, fielding questions about design; and Ted Lehr, offering help in computer science.

“It was really interesting for me, Lehr’s feedback and way of teaching,” says senior Samantha Hollensbe, who is majoring in computer science. “It really got me used to working with a team. In a lot of computer science classes, you don’t have that.”

McKenna Strain, communication design senior, also sees the benefit: “I think taking a step outside the classroom is really integral to design. To all of us.”

“This project has definitely prepared me for a lot of things,” says Marissa Servantez, communication design senior. “It’s different than the projects you do in class. I’m learning so much more just from my peers — there are six different majors, I believe, between us all — and getting a glance at how a real-world project is structured.”

Chavez, the digital media innovation major, notes that “a lot of people lack those skills” for working together effectively across disciplines, something he enjoys doing and that is a valuable asset for most careers.

Beyond the résumé-building experience, though, the group is committed to helping the Hays County Food Bank thrive. Says Servantez: “Our community grows every semester, and that means there are more people for them to feed, and I want our project to help them reach everyone who needs it.” ⭑

The F.E.E.D. team has already achieved a lot. They participated in the 2019 Texas State SXSW Innovation Lab and were the university’s winning entry into the Microsoft Community Impact Pitch-Off, a competition in which people propose ways for the tech company to engage in community-oriented projects.

students holding a check in front of a sign "2018 Community Impact Pitch-off"