Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“If you do some digging, you’ll see that food security in America is not nearly as robust as you think it is.” Even though we live within miles of federally designated food desert — Chester, PA — food insecurity in America isn’t something we think about frequently.
Jason Heo ‘15 is hyper-aware of food insecurity issues. “Between one in six and one in seven Americans go hungry every day,” he said. He’s working to change this statistic with Farepath, a social nonprofit with the genes of a lean tech startup.
Farepath plans to turn food donation into an active, community oriented process. “Farepath is going to open up the black box around the current food donation model,” said Heo, “where you give money or goods to a large organization, and have no idea where it actually goes.” Farepath bet that by tracking cans and showing donors the direct impact of their donations, people will be more inclined to donate. They also bet that an engaged community of donors in friendly competition with each other will be more impactful than single individuals donating in private.
Farepath’s disruptive take on food donation is best explained in the form of a narrative.
Imagine you’re a middle aged homeowner in the town of Swarthmore. You’re settling in for a quiet Saturday evening, when your phone buzzes with a friendly reminder from the Farepath app — it’s time to put out donations. You flick over to the neighborhood map, and see that your neighbor Joe is leading you by five pounds of food this week. This is unacceptable; Joe is your least favorite neighbor (by far), so you put out three cans on the porch and go back inside to watch Modern Family.
The next morning, a bleary eyed student wakes up in her Swarthmore dorm room to a notification from Farepath: it’s time to collect cans. She finds her designated houses on the Farepath app, and starts her route. It takes her less than an hour to collect the cans, scanning the barcode of each item into the app. She sees that the Swarthmore Farepath chapter collected forty pounds of food this week — not bad.
Imagine this sytem playing out in neighborhoods across the country. The system is unobtrusive, data-driven and fully automated. And it’s been quietly building momentum since Heo’s freshman year: they’ve collected more than 2000 pounds of food to date.
Heo has been thinking about food insecurity since before coming to Swarthmore. In high school, he was obsessed with the Huffington Post, and followed closely as they covered the food crisis in East Africa. As he learned more about food insecurity, he discovered that hunger wasn’t just an international issue: “In 2012, every country in America experienced some amount of food insecurity”, he said. It was around this time that he came across Peter Norbeck’s successful “One Can a Week” food donation model, which encourages members of a community to pledge to donate just one can per a week to a local food bank. He put two and two together and realized that with better leveraged technology, Norbeck’s system could be easily expanded to communties across the country.
Heo launched the Farepath pilot in his freshman year at Swat, and applied for Lang Center Summer Internship support. With the Lang funds, he spent his summer working at food banks in both San Francisco and Swarthmore. He saw how people relied on the banks for emergency food when their food stamps ran out, and saw that the current model misses a potential for human connection. “It denies donors the potential be engaged citizens, and know who they’re benefiting,” he said.
Since then, he’s put together a team of volunteer engineers and designers to develop the Farepath iOS and Android apps. This team has almost finished a website that teaches about food insecurity and encourages collectors to start their own Farepath chapters. And they’ve partnered with Chester Eastside Ministries, a local government sponsored food pantry and after school program.
Heo is emphatic in explaining that Farepath isn’t a solution to food insecurity. “The solution comes at the policy level,” he said, but Farepath can help fill the gaps. Like the apps and website, Farepath itself is still in beta — it’s local to Swarthmore, and Heo still piles the cans he’s collected in his dorm room until he can make a trip to the food bank. Nonetheless, they’ve nearly doubled their collections each semester.
Heo will graduate this year, and he’s hoping to work on expanding Farepath after Swat. “Farepath wouldn’t exist as it does now without Swarthmore,” said Heo, adding that “the best way to foster your projects and ideas is to talk about them with like minded people.” In that spirit, Farepath is looking for more than just collectors and donors — they’re looking for new leaders and founding members, with fresh ideas and novel directions to explore.
“It can be a lot to go through the process alone, and you need a little bit of naivety to truly focus,” Heo said. Farepath is holding a meeting for new members this Tuesday, October 7th in Kohlberg 202 at 9pm.