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Combating Food Waste by Sharing Meals(Updated 10/15/16)

Share Meals is a resource that prevents wasted meal swipes and uneaten food in dining halls.

Photo of Kartikay Sharma

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Share Meals: An Overview

Inspired by an anonymous confession from a college student who only had $25 to feed himself for two weeks in the expensive New York City, Share Meals was created as a resource for food insecure students to receive food swipes from those that may have extra food swipes remaining at the end of the semester. It is a great way to bring together two students who potentially do not know each other and allows them to get to know each other over a meal, while also solving the problem of food insecurity and food waste at the same time. No longer do students have to worry about how they will be able to afford their next meal, and dining halls throw away less food, the food that would have otherwise been thrown away because of the ridiculous number of unused meal swipes.

Share Meals aims to simultaneously end food waste and hunger on the college campus. College is not a place where students should have to worry about how they will afford their next meal or whether or not they will have to go to sleep with their stomachs rumbling that night; it’s a place for students to study and make the best out of their educations. Share Meals alleviates the problem of hunger so that students have one less thing to worry about.

A significant amount of food is thrown away at college events because the event organizers often order extra in order to ensure that there is enough for everybody. With the launch of the new Share Meals app, users will now be able to drop pins at their location. For example, if there was a university event and they have leftover food, they can drop a pin and it will appear on the map to everyone using the app. This way, rather than having to throw away leftover food, the event organizers can give the food away to students who may be hungry at the time.

One of Share Meals’ goals is to track the consumption habits of its users. The supply and demand already shows that there are both people who are in need of food swipes, as well as students that have excessive food swipes. In the first week of its launch alone, there were 400 swipes donated, which leads us to believe that students were not able to properly track their usage and were left with unused nonrefundable meal swipes at the end of the semester. Once Share Meals has the data of the usage of meal swipes, it can give recommendations to students about how to track their usage better. This will result in increased consumption at the dining halls, which will throw away less food, as well as allow students to focus on their work rather than worrying about staying hungry.

The User Journey Map

#sharemeals is an online platform that connects students who are food insecure with free food, whether it's from fellow students with extra meal swipes or from leftover university catered events.

Our Ideal User
Name: Francis
Age: 31

Francis is doing a PhD program at New York University, where she researches synthetic antibiotics to use against the Zika virus.
Because she spends most of her time in the lab, she can only work part time as a babysitter and is on a limited budget. She often has trouble finding enough to eat and sometimes can't concentrate on her research.

On Tuesday, she has an hour break for lunch but has only a few dollars to last her the rest of the week. She's budget conscious and cooks at home as much as she can, but still has trouble making her food budget last the week.


Francis pulls out her smartphone and opens up the Share Meals App. Immediately, she sees that there are 2 club events in the same building that are hosting catered events. One is for Women in STEM, a club she's been meaning to checkout anyway. However, it doesn't start for another hour. The other is for an environmental justice organization, showing a screener on smallholder farms in Africa, but she would have to leave in the middle of it and doesn't want to disturb the other club members.


Francis notices there's another student, Shahid, at the student union, a 5 minute walk away. Shahid has extra meal swipes that he knows he's not using so he put up a notice on Share Meals. Francis reads through his profile: Shahid's a freshman studying English literature who's originally from California. Francis used to love the humanities but doesn't have much time for it these days; she wonders what doing a degree in that is like so she sends him a message: "Hey :) want to grab lunch?"

Breaking the Ice

Shahid is studying when he gets the message on his laptop; he has Share Meals open in another tab in his browser while he finishes some reading for his poetry workshop. He reads through Francis's profile and is intrigued by her research; he replies almost immediately: "For sure! Meet me here in 5 minutes?"


Shahid swipes Francis into the dining hall and they grab two trays of food. Francis is particular to get salad vegetables and complex grains; They grab a booth by the window and start eating. Shahid is still a little shy so Francis asks the first question: "What were you reading back there?"

"Oh, nothing. Just a little Emerson."
"Is it for a class?"
"Yes. But honestly, I would read him anyway. The way he describes our fundamental relationship with nature is so poweful."
"Yeah, we don't get much nature here. Concrete jungle, right?"

They continue to talk about their shared experience as New Yorkers and their unique experience coming from different home states. He asks about the quinoa that Francis has piled on her plate and he tries a bit. He'd like it better with hot sauce.


After lunch, Shahid goes back to finish studying and Francis returns to her lab. A few days later, she messages him on Share Meals again and sends him information about a scholarship opportunity with a small note: "if you're interested, I can put a good word in with the selection committee. I babysit for them sometimes :)" Shahid and Francis continue to chat and meet every few days for lunch.

Food Security

Francis is able to continue finding food resources to keep her fed paycheck to paycheck. She makes friends and network opportunities, and is finally able to attend a few Women in STEM meetings. Her university receives statistics from Share Meals quantifying and analyzing the need for better hunger intervention among their student body. In one semester, they roll out a new consulting program in the health center, new guidelines for leftover dining hall ingredients, and increase funding for the community garden.

updates(feedback and current status)

Share Meals has been accepted to NYU's Campus Coding Collaborative, with up to $3,000 in funding, other resources, and mentorship.

We've been exploring several resources at New York University to help us refine our idea. We've identified 3 primary user segments, what our value proposition to them is, and how we will generate revenue from them. Our largest breakthrough is understanding the key relationship with universities.

The national discussion is currently centered around food insecurity data. There have been a handful of research papers released so far, but many of them are deeply flawed. Without this objective data, large institutions like universities, government agencies, and NGOs are unlikely to move. This has been our experience talking with administrators at NYU, the University of Hawaii, and elsewhere; they need to know the scope of the problem before they can act.

Our primary focus will remain the same: to provide students with a real time map of food resources, whether it's from other students or from leftover event catering. Our breakthrough is the establishment of a secondary focus: to gather, analyze, and report on food insecurity data. This will be done through the Share Meals App interface. To give an idea of the potential impact, a recent survey from the Wisconsin Hope Lab had only 300+ respondents, a factor which calls its validity into question. Had Share Meals incorporated a survey into our user onboarding process, we would have 2,000+ respondents by now. We are also looking to either expand our team to include data scientists or expand our team's competencies by learning data science analysis to make meaningful sense of these potential statistcs. By providing universities with these reports, we'll be able to inform their food production, food waste, and food recovery policies. While the app provides an immediate solution to hunger, the data it gathers will fuel sustainable solutions as well.

We are currently in the process of interviewing key administrators across universities to identify if they know the current hunger statistics on their students and, if not, what their current goals are to find these out.

On the app side, we are still refining the core functionality. We've researched similar apps that are being released / have been released; none seem to exhibit the expertise needed to execute this idea properly. For example, the Swipes app from Columbia University was buggy on release, missing several key features like push notifications. We are examining their critical weaknesses to inform our development further. We have conducted some user interviews with our beta version and have generally positive feedback. We presented at the NYC Media Lab 2016; several of the attendees loved our idea and found the app experience mostly intuitive. There were a few design elements that weren't obvious, such as phrasings and visuals.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

College event hosts can drop pins at college events and gather data about how much food was thrown away, in pounds, in the period before the use of pins versus after to see if it has a significant effect on reducing food waste, as well as gather data from dining halls to see whether they are throwing away less food. We can also conduct short-form surveys about food insecurity (the need for change) and food waste (the avenue for change).

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

We are exploring financially sustainable ways to utilize technology and social activism to reduce food waste. We would love any ideas about financial sustainability or unique intersections between technology and social impact.

Tell us about your work experience:

Jonathan Chin, the founder of Share Meals, has experience in software engineering, social entrepreneurship, and teaching. He has been coding academically and professionally for 18 years and has actively been involved in food insecurity for the last 3 years. He was recently nominated as a finalist for the Clinton Hunger Leadership Award for his work with Share Meals.

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

How far along is your idea?

  • It’s on the ground creating impact – it’s existed for over 1 year

How would you describe this idea to your grandmother?

My grandmother knows the value of food, having grown up in poverty. I would tell her that this generation's college students no longer have to worry about the affordability of food, and that there is an app that allows them to share meals with another student that has excessive food swipes remaining. This way, hungry students can eat, and food is not wasted. I am sure she would be delighted.

[Only for launched ideas] How does your idea differ from what you're already doing?

Share Meals is currently tackling the short term problems that require an immediate solution, by providing meals to students in need by those who have excessive meal swipes that would result in wasted food. The idea we are proposing tackles the longer term problems by trying to find effective ways to monitor consumption so that there exist no excessive food swipes, and therefore food from dining halls does not go in the trash.

How is your idea unique to the space?

Although there are many great ideas out there that are effective in combating food waste, what makes Share Meals unique is its social aspect. Share Meals connects two students and allows them to bond over a meal; they may not have met each other otherwise. It presents an opportunity to meet new people and foster new relationships as an alternative to eating alone or with a usual group of friends. And it does all this while tackling food waste and food insecurity.

Who needs to play a role in your idea in order to make it successful?

We need to partner with all of the customer segments we serve. We need food insecure students to offer adhoc mentoring and networking for the swipes that are shared with them and to provide data on the real impact of hunger. We need student donors to provide swipes and to make meaningful, individual change. And we need universities to listen to what’s really happening among their students and steer their policies to serve them better.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

We would like to collect data based regarding the number of swipes donated and the number of swipes used. Ideally, both statistics should decrease over time, which would indicate that food insecurity and food waste are becoming less of a problem. In addition, we would like to receive data from dining halls to see how much food they are throwing away. This too, should decrease over time, which would show that, due to the app, less food is being thrown away.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

We will connect with the handful of university administrators who reached out to us and roll out our app with them. Since data analysis is a major aspect of our vision and is critical to systemic, sustained change in food waste, we are looking to expand our team, by adding data scientists, or to expand our team’s competency, by studying the field ourselves. We will engage in various marketing approaches to increase our visibility and get students, both food insecure ones and donors, to use it.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Sierra Semel

I currently attend Virginia Commonwealth University and the amount of food wasted because of the dining plan is very upsetting. My friends and I have always wished there was a way to either donate or give extra meal swipes to other students in need of them. The only problem you may encounter is getting colleges to fully support this idea  because often times, unused meal swipes result in money earned for them.

Great idea!

Photo of Jonathan Chin

Sierra, yes, that was my initial worry. However, as we rolled out our prototype at NYU, we actually found TREMENDOUS support from dining services and student affairs. By supporting us, they gain a lot of positive PR for a low price. Student Affairs was also supportive because we were one of the few active organizations tackling hunger among students.

I recognize that we may have gotten lucky at NYU but I've also been contacted by faculty and administration from other colleges. Depending on how we approach this (i.e. if we can attach it to the growing concerns of sustainability and affordability), colleges can champion this idea as proof they care and are taking active steps.

Photo of Sierra Semel


It sounds like you have a lot of documented success!  I would love to see this idea become a reality because so much food is wasted through university dining plans. 

Good luck in the future!


Photo of Jonathan Chin

Thanks! We're doing our best and exploring all the resources we can get!

Photo of Jonathan Chin

Hi Sierra,

If you want help and support to start a food insecurity initiative at VCU, I'd be happy to chat with you. Feel free to email me at

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