FoodMap: Helping feed Montrealers in need

Information-sharing platform connects small food banks, food donors and people in need, in order to reduce food waste, achieve food security, and build an inclusive and sustainable society

Launched as part of McGill’s Bicentennial celebrations, impact200 is a sustainability challenge aimed at turning student ideas into concrete projects to make the world a better, and greener, place. The objective is to address, in particular, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to protect the planet, improve lives and end poverty.

The response from McGill students was impressive: 44 teams of between three and six members submitted proposals following the original call for entries in late 2020. Of those, 10 were named as finalists this past April.

The projects focus on alleviating environmental and social problems in myriad ways. These initiatives include everything from converting harmful excess algal bloom into biomass and transforming solid waste into nutrition; to purifying contaminated water and developing a solar mobile refrigerator for clinics in remote regions. The common thread tying all impact200 finalists together is to make the world a better place.

Each finalist received funding and expert mentors to help develop a proof-of-concept during the summer. The impact200 initiative would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Sustainability Projects Fund, the Faculty of Science, and the Faculty of Arts.

Leading up to the announcement of the winning project in December, we will feature each of the 10 finalists in the Reporter.

Today, we talk with the team behind FoodMap, an information-sharing platform that connects small food banks, food donors and people in need, in order to reduce food waste, achieve food security, and build an inclusive and sustainable society.

Tell us about the FoodMap initiative

We aim to reduce food waste, achieve food security, and build an inclusive and sustainable society through FoodMap. FoodMap is a web-based platform where:

  • Mid-small sized food banks can easily manage and share their inventories, as well as manage their logistic needs regarding donations.
  • Small businesses such as restaurants and supermarkets can donate their surplus food anytime by a simple click
  • Community members who want to contribute can easily apply for volunteer positions.

FoodMap can accomplish all the above by enhancing the communication among food banks, food donors and communities, where currently there is no platform joining all three.

As a group, we seek to bridge the gap between the significant amount of food being wasted every year and the growing problem of hunger which is often being ignored in our society. In addition, we hope to raise social awareness of the food support network, and reduce the stigma associated with the need of using a food bank. Our mission is to build a society of caring, sharing and sustainability.

How many people are on the team?

We have three members on our team: Zhe Li, Xining Chen, and Zi Wang.

Zhe graduated from McGill in 2018 from the Department of Chemical Engineering. He has many years of experience working in the food and hospitality industry. In this project, Zhe has provided numerous valuable insights in the food-related business and brought in many important suggestions from people in the field.

Xining is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at McGill. She is the co-president of McGill Graduate Management Consulting Association. Xining has engaged in problem-solving in her daily work, which benefits our project when troubles come. Xining also enjoys visual art; she is in charge of creating appealing artistic representations for this project.

Zi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at McGill. She is the president of McGill Chinese Graduate Student Association. With her excellent communication skill, Zi has reached out to many food banks and organizations in this project, and built us a strong network with others, bringing partnerships to achieve our goals.

Which of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals does FoodMap address?

Our project touches upon several sustainable development goals (SDGs), including zero hunger, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, and partnerships to achieve the goal.

On one hand, food waste, especially the destruction of perishable food, has been a challenge. This is especially true for perishable food items. Since perishable food needs to be processed promptly, the lack of a coordinated and efficient logistic system is one of the main barriers to the donation of perishable food. As a result, perishable food that is unsold close to expiry dates will often go to waste, even if the food is perfectly edible. Meanwhile, the distribution of food is uneven within societies, as demonstrated by the rising demand for food banks.

On the other hand, the inadequacy of real-time information sharing between medium to small local food banks, food donors, and communities has been challenging. Small food donors and food banks do not have the resources to develop efficient logistic platforms to coordinate their efforts. Members of the general public often lack timely knowledge of local resources in a time of need. This lack of coordination of information can lead to unnecessary food waste, which could be avoided by using the FoodMap platform.

With FoodMap, we aim to reduce food waste in Montreal by facilitating the salvage of the food that might otherwise go to waste, thus lowering the carbon footprint. By doing so, we help relieve hunger issues (both the originally existing ones and ones emerging due to COVID-19) by redirecting the food donation in a timely, efficient, and well-organized manner.

Our project will have a farther-reaching impact beyond aiding with food redistribution. We work closely with many local food banks, restaurants, and organizations in the universities and communities, in hope to raise social awareness of the food support network and decrease the stigma associated with using a food bank. We believe people will also be more aware of the potential waste of food and will start to consume and process food in more responsible ways.

What was the genesis of the initiative?

The initial inspiration for our idea came from our team member Zhe who works as a chef at a local restaurant. Zhe noticed that perishable but perfectly edible food items at restaurants sometimes had to be discarded because they won’t be sold on time and the quantity of the food is too small to be accepted by a large-scale food donation distributor. At the same time, we kept learning about issues of food insecurity and the surging needs of donated food through news articles and sustainability workshops, especially during the pandemic era. An idea emerged: Why don’t we coordinate the two problems, and make them both better?

Since the inception of this initial idea, we spoke to operators of many food banks, as well as local restaurant owners in Montreal. We were well received when we presented our real-time information sharing FoodMap idea to them. Meanwhile, we heard their needs and concerns. Such back-and-forth interactions are mini inspirations for us along the way. They help us to shape our initial idea into a more tangible and practical plan. Our idea kept evolving in this process.

We are eager to reduce food waste, enhance food security, while building an inclusive and sustainable society. Food Map is our solution.

Could you tell us a bit about the mentorship phase of the impact200 competition? How did it work, how beneficial was it?

Impact200 has provided us with strong mentorship support which is extremely beneficial to the development of our project. We have been matched with three mentors in total in this competition, they include:

Ms. Karina Perez from Chemonics International. Karina is one of our mentors for the round one competition. Karina has also been working with us constantly along with the competition since the beginning of this project. She has given us invaluable guidance and suggestions on the overall direction of this project and helped us shape the delivery of the project proposals.

Mr. Jason Vallis from Planetary Hydrogen. Jason is the other mentor of our team for the round one competition. Jason has met with us several times on Zoom, helping us order our thoughts and enlightening us with his insights in high technologies.

Mr. Michael Gradek from Busbud. Michael is our mentor for the final round competition. Michael is the co-founder and CTO of Busbud.com. His technical background in building the digital platform and experience of creating a company made him a perfect mentor for us. He analyzed our product roadmap and offered many valuable ideas and advice.

What are the biggest challenges the team has faced and how did you overcome them?

The main challenges we have are 1) to prioritize the needs of our potential clients and 2) to strategically target a small user circle to beta-test the initial versions of our platform.

Our vision is to create a platform bridging the local food banks, food bank clients, and community contributors such as volunteers and local donors. During the planning and proposal stage of our project, we have outlined several key features of our FoodMap platform, intending to serve all actors in the network we envisioned: local food banks, food bank clients, volunteers and local donors. In practice, however, creating all features at once before release is not only cost ineffective, but also leaves too much room for error. Trying to target many intended audiences at once will also create confusion in the fine-tuning of our website features and in our marketing campaigns.

Out of all the features we planned, we decided to narrow down our focus to food bank clients only at this stage, with only one initial feature: food bank inventory/leftover management and sharing. We have also decided to start beta-testing our platform with only a few communities with more local food bank presence. Other features of our website that we planned for will come after we launch this current phase of our website. We plan to fine-tune these features with the food bank operators in the future to ensure that we are answering to their needs. We therefore expect a longer execution period to fully develop and implement all our intended features and to promote these features to their respective target audiences.

Where does the initiative stand at present?

  • FoodMap is now a registered non-profit organization.
  • We are launching FoodMap at www.foodmap.ca. We are currently debugging the different functional modules for the website and have already started to upload the modules that are ready for beta-test. Many charities in Montreal have expressed interests in using FoodMap, including Mission St.Michael, Love Burgundy Food Bank, The People’s Potato, Midnight Kitchen, Resilience Montreal, etc. A few restaurants and grocery stores also expressed interests in becoming donors, including Fairmount Bagel, Yaourti, Poulet Rouge, etc.
  • We are preparing applications for fundings to sustain and further improve our service.
  • We are working on expanding our network: the more charity organizations on the network, the more donors are willing to participate, in turn benefiting more charity organizations.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Our team has contacted many people and organizations, each with their unique background and expertise. We would like to especially thank to:

Ms. Chantal Laferrière from Mission St-Michael, who has voiced her firm support to our initiative of building FoodMap to help food banks exchange resources and volunteered to be the first organizational user without any hesitation;

Mr. James Copeland from Renaissance Church, who has expressed keen intention in using FoodMap and shared with us his experiences in operating the food bank services and the difficulties that food banks are facing in providing the community with accessible food;

Mr. François Jolicoeur from Moisson Montréal, who has been working with us closely, introducing us to many local food banks and soup kitchens, and giving us a tour in Moisson Montreal, the largest food bank in Canada in terms of quantities of food passing through annually and warehouse size;

Ms. Jacqueline Manuel from Little Burgundy Coalition, who has been dedicated to improving the life quality of the residents, especially the food security aspect of the Little Burgundy community;

Mr. Philippe Angers-Trottier and Mr. Parker Mah from COCo, who have instructed us the process and pros and cons to incorporate FoodMap as an organization or an association, helped analyze our plan and suggested various approaches to website construction, and discussed with us our growth trajectory and marketing plan;

…and many other people and organizations who have provided us invaluable help and suggestions for the development of FoodMap.

Watch the videos of all the Finalists of the impact200 Bicentennial Student Sustainability Challenge and vote for your favourite project. Winners will be announced on December 2. Vote here.

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steven
steven
5 days ago

GOOD TEAM, GREAT JOB

Yiwei
Yiwei
5 days ago

Good project