Tackling Food Insecurity at UW

CSE 440 Staff
7 min readNov 28, 2023

By Jerry, Iste, Theo, Zainab

Challenge Overview

Food insecurity is a problem that affects all of the United States, and it’s very prevalent on college campuses where students are often both busy and unemployed. Through our research we identified key problems leading/contributing to food insecurity on campus, such as distant and limited food options, lack of transparency for welfare programs, and limited knowledge of UW Food Pantry’s policies, inventory, and its existence.

Our proposed design to help combat these issues is a smart vending machine along with an accessible phone application.

Design Research Goals, Stakeholders, and Participants

Through our research, we hoped to gain multiple different perspectives of the growing food insecurity issue at UW in order to come up with a design that considered the most common and important concerns for students. Surveys, our first user research option, allowed us to get a large number of responses (35+) from students of different backgrounds, and to get a broad overview of the specific issues that contribute to their food insecurity. There was also a separate survey created for stakeholders in order to learn more about the high demand food and possible solutions.

We also conducted in person interviews with both stakeholders and students. Interviews were helpful for asking questions that required more nuanced answers and also allowed us to delve deeper into individual experiences and perspectives.

The survey respondents were mostly UW Seattle students — we shared the survey link in online forum spaces for UW students. Our interviews were with a student, a prominent member of the UW Food Pantry and a staff member at WashPIRG. The student stated that they personally experience food insecurity and use Washington State’s EBT welfare program. The food pantry member serves in an administrative role and has also experienced food insecurity, while the staff member advocates for food insecurity as a volunteer. Our primary stakeholders include the students attending UW Seattle campus (the target audience) as well as the UW Food Pantry as it is the main source of getting food at no cost for students facing food insecurity (using their point system). Our secondary stakeholders include the grocery stores around campus and the District Market.

Design Research Results and Themes

Fig 1.1: Main source of food
Fig 1.2: Satisfaction for accessibility of affordable food options on campus.
Fig 1.3: Strategies to manage food insecurity.

Our survey of 37 current UW students, drawn from diverse online communities, offered crucial insights into the challenges faced by university students. Nearly 30% of respondents identified as food insecure, shedding light on a pressing issue within the student body. Even though 30% identified as food insecure, 48.6% (see Fig 1.3) of respondents said they skip meals as a strategy to manage food insecurity. A majority of participants at 51.4% would give the food options on campus only 2 out of 5 stars in terms of affordable food options (see Fig 1.2). It makes sense why eating at home was the most chosen food source option, as 0% (see Fig 1.1) of participants were happy enough to give food options on campus 5 stars in terms of accessibility and affordability. Critically, only 9% of the participants were happy (see Fig 1.3) with the affordability and accessibility of the food options on campus, and nearly 20% reported having to choose between purchasing food or other amenities. Participants also pointed out having significant challenges with the distance between food options, as well as the accessibility/ information surrounding options like the Food Pantry or welfare programs.

In three semi-structured interviews, we gained valuable insights from diverse participants.

Participant 1, a Junior student, highlighted the difficulties faced due to a previous work injury, relying on 60% of her previous income and EBT support. She does not receive financial support from her family and lives with her partner while attending UW but often experiences food insecurity. She took issue with the distance between food options on campus, and said she often turns to home-cooked meals. Even so, she described that she faces difficulty with the unclear nature of the UW Food Pantry’s policies and inability to know which items are going to be in stock. She also noted that it’s difficult to know which food options accept EBT.

Participant 2, an administrative coordinator at the UW Food Pantry, was once a visitor at the UW pantry. She remarked how isolating food insecurity can be, recounting her own experience, and how volunteering and working has played a major role in making her feel more integrated into the UW community. She emphasized the surge in food insecurity rates and visitor numbers, indicating the pantry’s struggle to meet the growing demand. She stressed the significance of fostering a sense of community among students facing food insecurity as a way for improvement.

Participant 3, a staff member at WashPIRG, acknowledged the positive step forward with the existence of the pantry but felt it could benefit from increased publicity. She hopes more resources could be allocated, citing the recent implementation of the basic needs act for a campus resource navigator as a positive step.

High level themes

Our research uncovered two pivotal themes worth exploring. Firstly, the overwhelming consensus among participants was the need for affordable, healthy food options on campus. The surveys indicated that most prefer home cooked meals and that they are not satisfied with the options available due to distance, lack of discoverability, or affordability. This highlights the importance of designing a solution that prioritizes high availability and variety. Addressing food waste and optimizing portion sizes emerged as actionable steps to alleviate financial strain. Secondly, there is a pressing need for improved clarity and publicity regarding food services at UW. Brought up by Participant 1, and echoed by a large number of survey respondents, a significant portion of students are unaware of essential food insecurity resources and/or how they operate. Participant 3 emphasized the positive impact of the basic needs act, underlining the importance of enhancing communication and information about available resources and services. There was also a shared concern for EBT acceptance on campus. Furthermore, the stigma associated with seeking assistance, such as using a food pantry, emerged as a significant concern. This stressed the importance of fostering a supportive and non-judgmental environment.

Proposed Design

After conducting research, we found that many UW students skip meals often to cope with food insecurity or save time. They may also have resources available to help them but not know how to utilize them. For these reasons, we thought that the best design would be a mix of a physical and technological solution, allowing the students to get more involved with more modes of access. Focusing on convenience and ease of access, our proposed solution is a vending machine with an associated app. The vending machine can offer students quick and convenient hot/cold meals on the go and has an inbuilt map to help students locate nearby grocery stores, vending machines, and other food options. The vending machine also supports EBT and has an assortment of fresh foods and ingredients along with recipes to help students get proper nutrients. The app allows students to order food, check which places accept EBT, look at recipes and share their own recipes with other students and order fresh groceries to cook at home. The vending machine/app will also be able to detail UW food pantry policies, as several students found the lack of clarity in the policies to be an obstacle to obtaining food from there.

Fig 2.1: digital prototype of the app showing food pantry stock, recipes and nearby vending machines

The app (as seen in Fig 2.1) includes features like a vending machine locator, revealing location, hours, and available meals inside the vending machine. Not just limited to the vending machines, the app would also help locate nearby restaurants and grocery stores and display user ratings for value and affordability, along with if they take EBT.

Another feature is a view of what’s in stock at the food pantry, the policies and what food they can get, and users can select what they want to pick up and the app will tell them how much pantry points they have left.

With the ingredients they get from the pantry or ingredients they have in general, users will also be able to search up recipes in the app for complete meals they can make with what they have.

STORYBOARD 1 — Exploring nutritious recipes with available ingredients

Fig 2.2: Using vending machine to obtain fresh nutritious meals (task 1)

Our storyboard(see Fig 2.2) above involves Miles and Gwen, students who are searching for nutritious food between classes. Miles uses the app to cook his meal at home after ordering fresh groceries through the app. Gwen explores her options by first checking the stock levels of the current vending machine. The vending machine indicates that a nearby vending machine has her desired meal in stock so Gwen goes there and pays for her meal using EBT. The key focus is on the seamless integration of the app with the vending machine and the easy but numerous menus for navigation offering students many options for obtaining a quick but filling meal.

STORYBOARD 2 — Navigating UW food pantry policies

Fig 2.3: using the vending machine to learn about UW food pantry policies

Our second storyboard (see Fig 2.3 above) involves a student, Joe, using the vending machine as a tool to find out more about the UW food pantry’s policies. It includes information like the location, service hours and number of points for each guest per visit etc. This makes Joe feel confident enough to visit the pantry in person to get the groceries he needed for his next meal.

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CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction