I have been very fortunate in my life never to know true hunger. I haven't had to live with the anxiety that comes from not knowing when or from where your next meal is going to come. Working on FoodFinder gave me the chance to confront my unconscious biases, and I'm grateful to this day.
I didn't realize how widespread hunger was in this country. I didn't realize how many different food pantries there were until I saw all the data on the map. I didn't realize how hard it still was for those without auto transportation to get to and from those pantries. I didn't realize how little people were often able to take when they did get to a pantry. I didn't realize how hard it would be to figure out when pantries would be open, what hours and days, when they would change seasonally (often on a weekly basis) and points of contact would suddenly disappear, phone numbers disconnected. I didn't realize how embarrassed or ashamed I might feel to ask for help as a kid at school going hungry. I didn't realize how tense life could be at home when food needed to be rationed, when I would be forced to hoard food in my room. I didn't realize what limitations were placed by state and local government on what could be donated, and to whom, and how often. Until I started talking to people who dealt with this every day in the course of my research for this project, I had only a very faint idea of how many people confronted hunger, and I was ashamed of my privileged ignorance.
So, then, I also didn't realize how much work went on to build and maintain this database of food providers. This is the core aim of Foodfinder, the ambitious project of Jack Griffin and his family. From when I began working on it in 2015 to when I left stable kernel in 2019, I had watched both Jack and Foodfinder grow from a local resource with a broken website to a nation-wide program partnered with the USDA and many large food distribution organizations.
Perhaps without realizing it, Jack had built one of the best available databases of food pantries for folks in need of assistance, and when his team approached stable kernel in 2015 we knew we could help them realize the front-end experience. We learned a lot through the years. Principally, that while users loved the service, they also wanted to use the service as little as possible. Once they had located a reliable food pantry, they would make it part of their schedules and their lives. We also learned that people used the iOS and Android platforms far less often than the mobile web version. So, we went through in 2018 and did another pass on the mobile web UX to make sure it was as easy to use as possible. We focused especially on the onboarding and location permissions, so that we could locate users on the map to auto-populate any nearby sites.
We explored many avenues for future development, but since we only got a scant few weeks a year to work on the project, the team rarely had time to develop them out. Among my favorites were a filtered search to make it easier to find locations that were open now and see how far away they were. We leveraged native maps to provide directions via car or transit. I also designed a system to allow individual users to submit changes to sites for moderator review, in case the information provided by the database was incorrect or out of date, including an interface to update open hours and dates (particularly tricky as many sites are open only several months per year). A lot of effort went into managing the site list, and a lot of time had to be spent sanitizing data so filters could eventually work (all site info was initially stored as unsortable strings until it was arduously rekeyed by hand by Jack's mom). Getting everything into a properly set up SQL database took a lot more effort than anticipated, but the work was all worth it.
Overall this is one of the projects I've worked on the least, yet also one I'm most proud of. I did some visual design and re-branding for them, plenty of UX - especially in the areas of onboarding, iOS, Android, and web design - to try to keep things simple and effective for people who needed it. It's rare in this industry to be able to work on a project that directly helps others - and I'm proud to have had the chance to help it grow.