September 21, 2017

These young entrepreneurs are building an app to fight lunch shaming

By helping donors 'pay it forward,' these teens are working to ensure that no student goes hungry

The team behind 'Food for Thought,' a forthcoming app focused on helping food-insecure students pay for their school lunches. From left to right: Fiona Xu, Emma Yang, Alyssa Kapasi, Ivy Mao, Gabrielle Rich. Photo courtesy of Team Fig

The typical student certainly isn’t thinking about bringing a smartphone app to market, or scaling it for national use.

But the students who make up Team Fig—a group of six teens ranging in age from 13 years old to 18 years old—are not typical. They hope to achieve national impact with ‘Food for Thought,’ a smartphone app aimed at combatting lunch shaming and lunch debt.

Lunch shaming is the practice of singling out and punishing students whose parents haven’t paid for their lunch. Punishments range from stamping students’ hands to forcing them to do chores—a practice in place in roughly half of U.S. school districts. Using a “pay it forward” model, Team Fig’s app would encourage users to buy school lunches for those who can’t afford them.

Working toward that goal, the team won a $2,000 grant from the Allstate Foundation, and raised about $1,700 in a crowdfunding campaign. The money will go toward the development of the app. The Renewal Project is made possible by Allstate.

“[Team Fig] saw a need — youth going hungry — and took it upon themselves to do something about it,” Laura Freveletti, senior program officer at the Allstate Foundation, told DNAinfo. “Their idea of providing parents an easy to use method to pay for lunches for those in need is ingenious. It’s a wonderful example of how we can all pay it forward.”

The team has an ambitious plan for the future: By November, the team hopes to expand, bringing on staffers from the rest of New York state and New Jersey. By early 2018, the girls hope to formally become a nonprofit. Finally, they hope to run a pilot test of their application during the next school year.

These plans were almost derailed earlier this month. On Sept. 6, New York City announced that going forward, all public schools in New York City would provide students with free lunches. “We’re erasing all the terrible history of the school food program not only in New York City, but nationally, that has divided children by income,” said Liz Accles, the executive director of Community Food Advocates, a New York-based organization focused on improving low-income New Yorkers’ access to food. “We’re done with that. This is a new day.”

The abrupt change in policy could have led to the dissolution of team with lesser ambitions. But Team Fig is undeterred. “We really always planned for this to grow into a national product,” said Maya Whites, 13, a member of Team Fig’s business and marketing team. “We were planning to start with our own community in New York, but the plan didn’t just change on Friday. It’s always been our goal to help all the kids that we can.”

“We believe that humans are kind. They want to help other people, especially those in their community, especially children. We want to harness that and apply it to school lunches.”

Alyssa Kapasi, 17, the leader and founder of Team Fig, emphasized the national scope of the issue. “Seventy-six percent of school districts in the U.S. have school lunch debt, so we know that this isn’t something that is just affecting our community, but is affecting the U.S. as a whole,” said Kapasi. We’re extraordinarily happy that Mayor de Blasio is implementing this measure, but we still feel that this is a project that can help children across the U.S.”

The team has faced certain barriers on account of their youth, something they hope to combat with a more formal name and the institutional backing of Allstate.

“We were reaching out to school administrators and people at their districts, to validate our concept and reach out and see if this is a viable product,” said Emma Yang, 13, Team Fig’s head of technological development. “What we found was that a lot of people didn’t respond to us because they didn’t take us seriously.”

To that end, the group hopes to rebrand once they formally become a nonprofit—preferably to something more professional-sounding. “The Fig Group,” offers Kapasi. The fig is an integral part of the branding: figs represent wellness and prosperity, something the team hopes to share through their app.

“We believe that humans are kind. They want to help other people, especially those in their community, especially children,” says Kapasi. “We want to harness the power of community and human kindness [and] apply it to school lunches.”

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor for The Renewal Project