As a part of their Intro to Computer Programming class, students Maureen Dailey, Caroline Floam, Samantha Sinay, Carly Sinay, Karen Gordon, and Devan O’Neil at the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington came up with the idea of an app called “PantryPal” that aims to make it easier for people to find out what food pantries near them need.
Their assignment was to identify a problem in the community and create a plan for an app that would solve it. After coming up with a list of ideas, including an app that would allow them to share dresses for homecoming dances, and checking to see which ones did not already exist, the students decided to design an app that would help solve the problem of hunger in their community.
“We all have a commitment to service and understand that it is important to make an app that helps others understand (the importance of service) too,” said Dailey.
They all grew up attending Catholic schools that had food drives, and have seen how the drives often result in having a large quantity of the same item. While they were familiar with food pantries and the problem of hunger, the students said they did not know how big of a problem it was before doing the research for their project. They learned that 42.2 million Americans live in food insecure households, and 72 percent of food banks feel as though they are unable to meet the needs of their community, which further motivated them to be a part of the solution.
“The fact that we thought about it and went in-depth with what (the food pantries) need and provide for people, it was really an eye-opening experience,” O’Neil said. “Everything we did growing up in Catholic school, it meant something. We understood what we were doing and why we were just bringing in green beans for (seemingly) no reason. It put a face to what the purpose was.”
Their PantryPal concept includes a map of food pantries near the user, and when the user clicks on a food pantry, they can see the description, the operating hours, and a phone number. There is also a search bar, where people can search by location, the type of food they would like to donate, or the people they would like to donate to. With the app’s QR scanner, people would also be able to scan items in a grocery store and find out which pantries near them are currently in need of that item. So, if there is a two for one sale on green beans, people might be able to see where they can donate the extra can that they get.
Food pantries would be able to create an account to update their description and list of items that they need. The girls hope that the app will ensure that the pantries do not have a surplus of items that they don’t need, and are able to get enough of the items that they do need, in order to provide a balanced meal to everyone who needs one. To enter the Verizon contest, they made a video and wrote essays to present their concept.
“The most enjoyable part for me was coming up with a basic idea and watching it grow,” Floam said. “The hardest part was trying to visualize something that isn’t real.”
Lauren DeZinno, the teacher of the intro to computer programming class, said the assignment was designed to help them “view the whole course in a different light” by allowing them to see past sitting down at a computer to write lines of code and think about the end result of that code.
“I feel proud, just to see them go from, ‘Let’s make an app where we can share dresses’ to ‘Let’s solve the global problem of hunger’ and get really excited about it through the process,” she said “…And it is nice to see them being rewarded and recognized for their hard work.”
The group of girls was among 24 groups nationwide to be chosen as “Best in Region” for the challenge, out of more than 1,800 entries. Out of those groups, eight will be chosen to win “Best in Nation,” and get the opportunity travel to Orlando for a conference, win $15,000 for their school, and to have in-person app development training with MIT experts, in order to make their app a reality that can be downloaded and used.
In addition to competing for “Best in Nation”, they are competing for “Fan Favorite,” which would provide the same opportunity. The winner of “Fan Favorite” is determined by popular vote, and anyone can cast a vote by texting the code PANTRYPAL to 22333 by Feb. 14.
“Ms. DeZinno taught us way more than computer programming… We learned that we can actually make a difference in our community through technology,” said O’Neil. “And that is so cool, especially as technology is becoming more and more a part of our generation…she taught us how important it is to be a part of this new generation and still do the right thing.”