Eatclusive: Cultivating Community through Food Accessibility
Before forming Team Eatclusive and beginning their work toward making cultural produce more accessible in food pantries, Faizan Darsot and Jihee Yoon shared a vision of making a positive impact on the communities around them.
Story by Malin Andersson
Before the start of Innovation in Action, Faizan Darsot, a third-year student in Mechanical Engineering, reflected on his past experience volunteering with food pantries in California. With Jihee Yoon, a friend and graduate student in the School of Information, Faizan shared the many problems food pantries face in order to feed those they service.
Through research and conversations with food pantries, Faizan and Jihee identified a smaller, but no less significant, ingredient that rarely makes it onto the plates of those who rely on food pantries. That ingredient? Culturally-significant spices.
“We found out that many minorities that come to these pantries with food insecurity don’t have the resources, spices, or food to sustain a healthy and happy lifestyle,” says Faizan. “We really wanted to help people not feel the anxiety of not having their own food.”
Jihee quickly empathized with this issue, strengthening her and Faizan’s passion for helping those seeking a little taste of home.
Drawing from his creativity and passion for space, Faizan saw an opportunity to equip food pantries with food-growing technology used by astronauts. This idea would eventually lead Eatclusive into contact with NASA, opening the door for the resilient team to create an app connecting those who rely on food pantries to the culturally-significant produce they desire.
Driven by their vision, Faizan and Jihee entered Innovation in Action with hope and determination, eventually finding success and receiving $2,500 as the winner of the 2022 Poverty Solutions Award for Best Innovation in Economic Mobility.
Bringing Something New to the Table
The problems food pantries encounter are numerous and complex, creating quite the obstacle course for Faizan and Jihee as they faced dead-end after dead-end. Still, they remained motivated to create a real-life solution for the basic, yet often taken for granted, ability to cook a meal.
“Having a meal is such an important part of everyone’s life,” states Jihee. “Once we saw the possibility to bring tangible improvements to the underserved communities, we were motivated to move forward with passion.”
As they searched for a solution, Faizan and Jihee quickly realized that food pantries do not have the labor to spare for growing spices. That’s when Faizan understood they would have to think a little out of the box – or out of this world.
He recognized a potentially interesting similarity between astronauts and food pantry volunteers: lack of time and labor to grow food.
“Astronauts have to do hundreds of experiments a day,” explains Faizan. “They don’t have the time to plant and harvest their food. When you think about a pantry, it’s all voluntary work. They put a lot of time into making the food and distributing it. It’s a long tedious process – just like astronauts.”
This technology lowers maintenance demands and costs, making it simple for food pantries to grow their own produce and connect their community to the food that brings them comfort and inspiration.
Quickly, Faizan and Jihee realized that by proposing they work with NASA technology, many people perceived a barrier between an unrealistic dream and a feasible reality – a barrier that doesn’t quite exist.
“Whenever I mentioned ‘NASA’ in a sentence, people seem to flip out,” says Faizan. “Either it’s too costly, too complicated, or too far out to be included in everyday uses.”
It’s safe to say that Eatclusive has shown that that’s just not the case.
But technology is just one aspect of the picture. You may grow the spices, but how do you help get them on the plates of real people?
Jihee designed a user-friendly app that would support both pantries and those they serve, not only developing a cohesive and pleasant interactive experience but making sure that pantries and consumers alike would feel as supported as possible in their needs and desires. Little by little, Team Eatclusive found themselves closer and closer to actualizing the vision that inspired them.
Though they represent different backgrounds – Faizan from Mechanical Engineering and Jihee from UX/UI Design – Team Eatclusive learned how to find strength in their uniqueness.
While they worked both individually and together, they also utilized every meeting with Innovation in Action to its fullest potential, spending time in front of a whiteboard after every meeting to make sure they digested each comment and suggestion.
“I felt very supported. I loved the feedback,” says Jihee. “ I really felt that everyone at Innovation in Action really cares about making an impact in society. They truly support all these great ideas that students come up with.”
Throughout the entire process, Faizan and Jihee kept the food pantry community at the center of their work. Whenever they met a roadblock or a dead end, they remembered their stakeholders.
Jihee describes this motivation, stating, “we believe that by providing tastes of their cultural roots, you can boost up a community – not in terms of capital or money, but for something more important and significant.”
For Team Eatclusive, hard work truly does pay off. They were finally able to showcase their work at the Innovation in Action Showcase and, with representatives from NASA in the audience, received the 2022 Poverty Solutions Award and $2,500.
From their time at Innovation in Action, Faizan and Jihee are even more equipped to realize their vision of providing food pantries with the means to create and connect people to culturally-significant spices and produce.
They are now beginning another phase, one with many potential challenges – but also many successes.
“Winning the award was very nice because we can actually get started with fundamental steps like processing patents, and getting scrap materials for the first prototype,” says Jihee. “That really gave us a boost to get excited and just start making something.”
For those interested in pursuing a similar idea, Faizan encourages you to “have the right connections at the right time with the right skills. When those three align, you can get through anything.”
Jihee emphasizes community and structure, as well as maintaining your vision throughout your work, saying, “try to go back to where you started and keep trying to make that problem shatter.”
Though Eatclusive still planned to move forward with their idea whether they won money or not, they left Innovation in Action with smiles on their faces.
Now, they will continue to support each other and those they’re motivated by as they pursue a creative, innovative, and empathetic way to help food pantries provide their communities with the spices of home.