Food for thought

Houston Food Bank launches app to better connect the city's food insecure residents to resources

The Houston Food Bank app aims to help optimize access to resources for the thousands of food insecure Houstonians. Photo via houstonfoodbank.org

In many ways, it was a perfect storm. Pariveda Solutions, a Dallas-based management consulting firm that specialized in helping its client maximize performance, reached out to the Houston Food Bank about offering some of its interns for a project. The Food Bank, long a pioneer and foot soldier in the fight to end food insecurity and hunger for the region's residents, had been considering ways to harness technology to better serve the needs of its clients.

"It was a fantastic opportunity for us," says Casey Ferrell, the Houston Food Bank's director of information technology, about the opportunity. "And we thought an app would be the best thing for the intern team to work on."

Five Pariveda interns worked over the summer on the app, which taps into Amazon Web Services, which the Food Bank was already using.

"Since the Houston Food Bank was already using AWS, this fit into where they wanted to go," explains Kevin Moorman, principal consultant for Pariveda. "The app uses GPS location services to help connect people who need the Food Bank's services with the closest location that can help them."

Across the Houston region, more than one million people are food insecure, lacking reliable access to nutritious food. Through its network of more than 1,500 community partners, the Houston Food Bank leads the fight against hunger by providing food assistance across its 18-county coverage area in southeast Texas. The Food Bank partners with thousands of entities, from soup kitchen to meal sites to shelters. Every year, the Houston Food Bank helps feed 800,000 individuals. There is a lot of need, and there are a lot of sites around the region that can aid people lacking food.

The app, in addition to pinpointing locations that can provide food for those in need, also allows people to make appointment with Food Bank staff. Currently, those appointments are on a walk-in basis, and clients are seen on a first-come, first served basis. With the launch of the app earlier this month, Ferrell says the organization has launched a pilot program with its Portwall location to allow clients to make appointments via the app. In the future, they should be able to make appointments all more Houston Food Bank locations.

"We actually did a soft launch back in October, says Ferrell. "And now, we have more than 3,000 downloads and 2,500 monthly users. The app lets them see open times for appointments, as well as contact information for locations."

Ferrell says the feedback from users has been positive. In particular, they enjoy the ability to receive updates about their appointments. But the app also provides for a greater user experience, allowing clients the chance to set things up as it makes sense for them and their daily schedules.

"We've also heard from other food banks who are looking to do something similar," says Ferrell. "So, we're looking forward to sharing our experiences with them."

Pariveda Solutions' 11-week internship program, offered each summer, is focused on making an impact to the community. The app last summer's intern cohort created is a first because it integrates with the database housed on AWS and reaches new communities.

"Working with Houston Food Bank gave us the opportunity to impact the Houston community at a large scale," says Allison Esenkova, Houston vice president for Pariveda Solutions in a press release announcing the app. "It provided a platform for our interns to learn the world of consulting while giving back in a way that impacts the Houston community to reduce hunger."

The internship was also an important opportunity for students to get hands-on experience not only in building an app, but also to get experience working with a client, listening to feedback and coming up with solutions to challenges.

"We want our interns to have as much real-world experience as possible," says Moormann. "This not only provided that, but has wonderful value for the end user. The app makes the process of finding services much smoother for those who need them."

Ferrell says that as the app is updated, the Houston Food Bank hopes to be able to use it to engage volunteers, as well as provide places where clients can rate their experiences at various food pantries.

"This has been a great value to us," says Ferrell. "And it allows us to provide better services to our clients."


The app connects the user to the Houston Food Bank and also provides more information about resources.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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