The familiar adage claims, “You are what you eat.” However, it is the lack of food that begins this story.
I was first confronted by food insecurity on my walk home from middle school.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for the Hinsdale Food Pantry and don’t know where I’m going. Can you help me?”
I didn’t know the answer to her question. I didn’t even know there was a food pantry in my town of corporate executives and PTO moms. The woman asking me her question resembled the latter. I gestured past the manicured lawns and towards the police station, where I assumed she would have better luck. This experience disproved the myth of universal stability in affluent communities like mine. Even more, it refuted the visual stereotypes of poverty that I had absorbed throughout my childhood. I walked home that day feeling changed.
As fate would have it, my friend invited me to serve on the inaugural junior board at the same food pantry two years later. Through volunteer work at the onsite pantry, I’ve had the opportunity to come to know my fellow community members utilizing the pantry and hear their stories. Like the woman who was unable to find our pantry two years prior, others were challenged by changing hours, documentation requirements, and the temporary nature of their housing. Government and nonprofit websites maintained lists of food resources, but these sites were difficult to navigate.
In the summer of 2015, my younger brother and I created Got Food?, a free mobile application (app) for iPhone and Android devices. Using a simple interface, Google technology, and a database of locations which I acquired through an early partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the app provides users with directions, service hours, and contact information to food pantries and soup kitchens. Got Food? was immediately well received by both the food-insecure community and the people who provide local services, including clinicians, social workers, and first responders. It was incorporated into the food security screening program at the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, where food insecurity approaches 30% of patients. When the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines for universal pediatric food insecurity screening, the Illinois chapter promoted usage of our app to members.
During the last year, I have forged a number of relationships with national entities including Feeding America. Utilizing its national network of food banks, I launched an outreach campaign to nearly every food bank in the country. Today, Got Food? hosts a database of over 2,300 food pantries and soup kitchens, used by clients and professionals in 14 states and counting. By regularly communicating with food bank staff, I aim to assist organizations in fulfilling the portion of their mission focused on feeding those in need. Got Food? is proud to be a founding partner of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s 100 Million Healthier Lives campaign. I am currently looking for an academic partner to apply for grant funding. Got Food? has recently gained the attention of individuals in federal government whom I hope to partner with in the near future. While I continue to volunteer at my local food pantry, Got Food? allows me to help organizations who are working and serving communities across the nation.
If you are someone who may ever be asked the question, “Do you know where the closest food pantry is located?”, I encourage you to download the Got Food? app for free on any Android or iPhone device. We are currently developing an analytics portal that will provide partner food banks with data specific to their service area. Our goal is to someday join with all of the major food banks so that we can provide easy connections to individuals across the United States who are in need of food assistance. Whether you are a food bank representative, physician, or nutrition professional, we would love to get you involved. Please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.gotfood.us for more information.
James Mathew (18) is from Hinsdale, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Among a long list of high school extracurricular activities, he considers his work surrounding food insecurity, both with Got Food? and his local food pantry, to be his most significant contribution to date. This coming fall, James will attend Harvard University, planning to study Government and Global Health and Health Policy. His goal is to one day occupy an office through which he can implement policy and impact the course of public health.