Where do children who rely on free lunches during the school year find food during summer vacation? Finding the answer to this simple question used to require a complicated process. “Police officers around San Mateo County kept reference binders, printed by libraries with the information about where to find services, in their squad cars,” says Marnie Webb of Caravan Studios. “Unfortunately, due to funding issues, the libraries were forced to stop printing these books.” Fortunately, in 2012, Caravan Studios, a company that builds tech solutions for communities, stepped in.
“We are a small division of TechSoup Global,” says Webb. “We focus on helping non-profit organizations with technology.” Caravan Studios got started on this issue after reviewing the results of a brainstorming session called Generate. “We go through this session to find ideas,” says Webb, and they kept encountering the issue of kids being in need of food during summertime school closure. “Folks were interested in hunger, so they talked to someone who works in data at San Mateo County. We learned that while librarians are the holders of information about where to find services during the summer, police officers are often the first referers to community member in need. We saw an opportunity to quickly and consistently get solid information into the hands of these first referers,” Webb explains.
According to Webb, children who don’t have access to healthy meals in the summertime gain weight two to three times faster than their peers. They also experience significant summer learning loss. “Only one in six youth who take advantage of federally funded lunch programs access available summer programs,” says Webb. Why? It’s not for lack of availability. There are summer sponsors who provide meals when schools are on break. These meals are served at common areas, mobile home parks or apartment buildings, city parks, libraries, and community pools. “There’s even a skate park that serves meals,” says Webb. Still, with all these options, “it is becoming increasingly challenging for first referers to find out where these meals are served and get that information to folks in a timely manner,” she finishes. Based on community input, the Caravan team realized it was technologically feasible to make an app that could show nearby places for food. Thus, Range was born.
Simply put, Range shows the user nearby places for available food services. The user (often a police officer) can then help a child in need, or his or her parent or guardian, find a meal. Range also provides text alerts, letting users know when new locations have been added. The data for Range comes from the Summer Meals Coalition and, in part, from public data from USDA. Range also pulls summer meals data from the National Hunger Hotline and hosts all the data on a Socrata portal. “The portal is much more robust, which is great for our purposes,” explains Webb. “It gives us the opportunity to do other visualizations on the data.”
An app like Range is very powerful. “It helps make people agents of a solution, instead of bearing the burden of knowing about it,” says Webb. The two audiences Range has had the most impact with are librarians and people at faith-based organizations. “They are dependably reachable,” says Webb. As of September 2014, Range had been downloaded more than 500 times, which is remarkable, given 2014 was the inaugural year of the availability of the app. The media response has been positive. “The School Library Journal printed a story about Range and librarians have responded well to that, says Webb. “Range gives them a tool to make it easy for them to do their jobs and serve their communities.”
Webb is excited about upcoming opportunities and long-term goals for the app. “We’ve collected this data in a snapshot, so we want to use the data to tell the summer meals story across the country over time,” she explains. “We also want to get feedback on the app itself so we can improve.” The Studio team plans to talk to food, shelter, and medical organizations about ideas for other apps, including one that might help youths find a free, safe place to hang out. Caravan Studios also has two other apps available.
“These apps are built with the idea that we are all in this together.”
The first, Safe Night, was created for domestic violence victims. “Last year, we found out there are 5,000 unmet requests for shelter in a single day,” says Webb. Safe Night is designed to connect domestic violence workers with volunteers who want to fund a night of safe shelter for victims. “We have received solid funding for this app. Plus, it won a grant from Partnership for Freedom by Humanity United,” says Webb. The second app is Four Bells, which helps deploy volunteers to do tasks after a disaster. “Imagine, in the event of a tornado, being able to dispatch a chainsaw expert with a big heart to an area that needs to be cleared, carefully. Four Bells allows us to organize volunteers and place them where they are most needed,” explains Webb.
Finally, the Studio team plans to continue the research that led to Range. They will continue building tools that are helpful by understanding the biggest issues facing citizens and communities.
You Can Help
As you are reading this, you are likely wondering if there’s a way for you to get involved. “These apps are built with the idea that we are all in this together,” Webb explains. “If people want to help, they can begin by downloading and using these apps. That’s the easiest way to participate.” Also, think about how this community process can apply to where you work and live. Use this concept to help source tools the community cares about and create broader engagement to help solve these issues. “The responsibility of feeding children doesn’t fall solely on their families,” Webb exhorts. “Community can and should share this responsibility.” Lastly, Caravan Studios is a non-profit organization that always welcomes donations and volunteers. “If people are inspired to help, please reach out to me,” Webb says.
You can contact Caravan Studios and Marnie Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.