An app developed to help local food pantries is gaining attention with organizations from Florida to California.
Fueled by an investment of time and manpower from EMI Imaging and a PUP! (Pick Up the Pace!) grant from The Harvest Foundation for a yearlong pilot program, the FeedTheNation app is serving more organizations and helping more vulnerable people strive for independence.
During the pilot program, the app grew from nine partner programs in Henry County and 23 other agencies in the Feeding America Southwest Virginia network to a total of 86 partner food pantries and afterschool programs. In October, it was unveiled at a national convention, and it now is undergoing trial runs at food banks in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico and California.
“I want it to go as far as it can in helping people who want to become self-sufficient,” said Adam Wright, vice president of EMI.
He added that new features are being developed for the app for 2018.
“There is no limit (to the app’s uses) as long as people have needs,” he said.
Sheryl Agee, program officer for The Harvest Foundation, said the project shows the impact a PUP! grant can have.
“The level of dramatic growth the software has experienced is an unexpected outcome of the FeedtheNation first-year implementation (PUP! grant). Initially designed for regular food pantry distributions, word-of-mouth quickly raised interest in FeedTheNation among other program types,” such as children’s afterschool sites, summer feeding sites, mobile food pantries, local governments and others, she said.
“This growth has not come easily, with countless hours of software development and many rounds to work out the bugs. However, this grant is a shining example of the impact an innovative idea can have, given the right champion to move it forward,” Agee added.
PROBLEM SPARKS INNOVATION
EMI began the Henry County Food Pantry in 2008 at the former Bassett High School after EMI’s staff became aware of the needs of area residents.
On the third Wednesday of every month, area residents can receive boxes with 35 to 40 pounds of food, depending on the number of people in their household. The boxes contain items such as canned vegetables, soup, crackers or bread, frozen meat and others.
The pantry uses donations from churches and individuals to buy USDA food from Feeding America Southwest Virginia, and it accepts donated food.
But the pantry grappled with mounds of paperwork that took valuable time away from its goal of helping people. Each month, paper forms had to be completed for the hundreds of food recipients and reports had to be filed so the pantry could buy U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food through Feeding America, a charitable food network.
“We were spending almost 19 hours every month to calculate the data and get it to them,” Wright said.
“God has blessed us with awesome volunteers and an awesome staff,” he said. But “volunteers wanted to help people, not do paperwork.”
So Wright, a largely self-taught technology specialist, turned to his computer for a solution about four years ago. He and Caleb Smith, lead developer and chief information officer at EMI, created the FeedTheNation app, which collects data, runs required reports and tabulates numbers.
“It took it from 19 hours to less than 30 seconds” to collect and forward the required documentation, he said.
The app also provides much more information, more accurately, about the approximately 1,500 active households that used the food pantry in the past 12 months, Wright said. People from about 380 households come each month, and their information is stored electronically and quickly verified.
In early 2016, Feeding America Southwest Virginia approached The Harvest Foundation for funds to pilot the app’s expansion to other food pantries in the area. Harvest provided an $8,500 PUP! grant, a funding program for creative ideas for local needs.
Wright calls The Harvest Foundation “our angel investor.”
It “gave us confidence. It gave us enthusiasm that someone else shared our vision of helping people,” he said. When Harvest was approached with the idea, “their eyes lit up.”
The $8,500 was used to provide equipment and the subscription costs of FeedTheNation, as well as ongoing training and continued development of the software.
The PUP! grant goal was to have 20 food pantries signed onto the app during the grant period of May 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017.
At first, only nine food pantries signed on to the app. But groups outside the area started to hear about it, and 23 food banks signed on through Feeding America Southwest Virginia. In all, 59 pantries are using the app.
Word-of-mouth quickly raised the interest in the app for other types of programs, such as children’s after-school sites and summer feeding programs, Feeding America Southwest Virginia’s Mobile Food Pantry and Veggie Mobile, and local governments. Now, 27 after-school feeding programs are using the app.
In October, Wright gave a presentation on the app to a national conference, and since then, he has made presentations to six food banks in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico and California. The food banks now are doing trial runs of the app.
One reason why the app caught the attention of many people is that it is the only one in the nation that can operate offline, Wright said. Information can be collected offline, stored and then put online when a cell signal is available.
As a result, Feeding America national has submitted a request to develop an application specific to senior citizen hunger relief programs.
“In the course of a year, he (Wright) has taken it from struggling to get local (food pantries to sign on) to expanding to a national level” and on its way to becoming sustainable on its own, Agee said. “It is probably the best PUP! (grant) we’ve ever had. … He hit the nail on the head.”
TWEAKING THE APP
The app’s mission is to “help the most vulnerable become self-sufficient,” Wright said. But, Agee said, it also is filling in gaps in what people need and providing data for support.
It includes information on whether food recipients and their household members have diabetes or high blood pressure, if they are handicapped, homeless, looking for work or need day care, or if they have transportation issues.
It also follows trends. For instance, Wright said it revealed that many clients go to food banks only in times of great need, not on a habitual basis as many people think.
As more groups became aware of the app and its potential, they asked for more features, Wright said.
“Everything we put in the app in some way an organization has said, ‘If we only had this information, we can more efficiently help the most vulnerable people,’” Wright said.
For instance, when Wright’s wife Pam complained that as a nurse practitioner, she was frustrated at spending more time trying to locate people than helping them, the app was tweaked to collect data to help.
Then there were after-school groups that were not getting USDA food because they did not do the required paperwork, so Wright modified the app for their programs. “As a result, they served more children,” Agee said.
Feeding America Southwest Virginia, through a partnership with the Mountain States Health Alliance in Southwest Virginia, intends to integrate the app at mobile food pantry sites to record people’s health care needs.
Using data from clients, messages can be sent to specific audiences. For instance, health coalitions can alert people with diabetes about classes that could help them. The Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce has been trained to use the app to share information on events, such as job fairs, and resources in the community, and the Virginia Community College System has discussed with Wright the idea of incorporating FeedTheNation into its outreach.
The app’s data can be revealed and put to use almost instantaneously. For instance, with just a few keystrokes, Wright recently demonstrated that a total of 194 households with a diabetic member had been to a food bank within 30 miles of the 24112 ZIP code since Nov. 1. With three more clicks, he could send all those households a message about an upcoming service or program, and the recipient can respond with questions.
“The coolest thing,” Wright said, was after a health fair, a person wrote, “‘Thank you. I was able to get three teeth pulled.’ He had missed ads (for the fair) on Facebook, in the newspaper, on TV, all the traditional ways. But he had a cell phone” so he got the information through the app.
The service is not free, but the fees are minimal — 5 cents a message — to help EMI cover its costs, Wright said. He added that in the future he hopes the app will become a moneymaker.
The app is part of FeedTheNation, which is supported by EMI but separate from it, Wright said. EMI’s work on the app is valued at $197,000.
“People think I’m crazy, but I feel God called us to this mission to help the most vulnerable,” he said, adding that his family, development team and staff all contributed to the effort. In addition, they learned things that they were able to use in EMI’s business, Wright said.
The Harvest Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 2002 by the sale of Memorial Hospital. The foundation seeks to invest in community initiatives that support economic development within Martinsville-Henry County. To improve the community’s health, educational opportunity and quality of life, Harvest will work to support organizations and projects that build and maintain economic prosperity. To date, the foundation has put more than $110 million in grant dollars back into the community and has an annual grants budget of roughly $10 million. To learn more, visit www.theharvestfoundation.org.