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Through an app, Reno middle schoolers aim to tackle food insecurity

Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education
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A group of Reno sixth graders are on a mission typically outside the wheelhouse of middle schoolers — to develop an app to raise awareness of food insecurity and help people facing it.

The project by five students at Doral Academy of Northern Nevada charter school was recently named the state winner of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition, where they competed against submissions from five other middle and high schools across the state that were finalists. As state winners, the students and their entire school received a prize package of $12,000 worth of technology and school supplies.

The students say they were interested in joining the project as part of an after-school enrichment class with their science teacher, Leigh Metcalfe, because they wanted to challenge themselves and learn how to help people through STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. 

Student Marlow Tanaka said before moving to the Reno area from California, she was part of a church group that passed out free food to its entire community. She noticed a similar need in her new home. 

“So when Ms. Metcalfe brought up in class that she was doing an enrichment class about helping people, I told my mom right as I got in the car, ‘I’d love to do this, please,’” she said.

The students’ app, which likely won’t be released until the end of summer, has planned features including a map and chat tool to connect users with farmers and other food producers who have leftovers that they would normally compost. The students said community members they’ve spoken with want to see their products go to those in need or organizations that provide free meals rather than composting it. 

Right now, Metcalfe said those growers send out alerts to their network of organizations via email, but that form of communication is not always efficient. One of the goals of the app is to streamline this communication process and expand food producers’ reach. 

“The farmer could say, ‘At this time, at this location, I have this much food. This is what type of food,’ and then somebody who's food insecure could say, ‘OK, I'm gonna come and pick up this much food,’” said student Daniel Fiecoat. 

The team said this would help others know exactly how much food is available, if any, before traveling to the pickup sites.  

Feeding America, a nonprofit organization and nationwide food bank network, defines food insecurity as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. An annual study by Feeding America found that in 2020, about 51,800 Washoe County residents, which account for 11 percent of the county’s population, were food insecure. Food insecurity rates among children, Black and Hispanic/Latino Washoe residents were higher than the county’s rate. 

Feeding America’s report said the food insecurity rate in the United States had been improving prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some of that progress was eroded by the world health crisis. Still, Feeding America found that food insecurity in 2020 was less than originally anticipated, likely because of pandemic-related intervention from local and federal government as well as support from the private sector.

The students learned through the project that food loss, which results from pre-consumer issues such as mold, pest or inadequate storage, and food waste, which refers to food that is fit for consumption but is intentionally thrown out, can have negative economic, social and environmental impacts. 

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30 percent to 40 percent of the food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Discarded food is responsible for as much as 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

“Ultimately, we're trying to cut down on greenhouse gas, which is just a horrible thing that can heat up the world,” Daniel said.  

Other potential app features include a tab for recipes users can make with the food items they receive and an educational game to teach about the food waste issue in a fun and educational way, and what users can do to prevent it. 

Doral Academy students, Marlow Tanaka, talks with teacher Leigh Metcalfe about an app she is building during an after-school STEAM enrichment class on March 16, 2023 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The students are now preparing to compete against the 49 other state winners for a chance to become one of 10 national finalists, and potentially one of three national winners. Samsung will announce the national finalists later this month and name the three national winners in May — a process that leads to a mix of nervousness and excitement for the student team.

“Once I got home, I started jumping up and down,” said Marlow. “A little nervous if we do get into the final round. I'm gonna be nervous for that.” 

Many of the students on the team said this was their first time developing an app, or that they had limited experiences with electronics and coding before starting the project. But the team members have been learning as they go, with the help of Metcalfe.

“Creating an app can be hard, but the result of our app is going to help the food insecure and hopefully what we're aiming for is to reduce food waste,” said student Katie Fiecoat. 

Metcalfe said the project is also teaching her students how to use STEM skills to solve real-world problems. 

“My hope is that it will spark the need to continue to help their community out by lots of different means,” she said. “Not necessarily just volunteering your time, but sometimes thinking outside the box and coming up with some kind of cool way to solve a problem.” 

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