STEM & sustainability fuel passion project for GDS student

by Alexis S., Global Development Studies student

For my global development studies class this semester, I took on the challenge of combining the intricacies of STEM and sustainability to create an app that addresses one of the sustainable challenges that our school community faces: food waste from lunch, a challenge that is an integral part to UN Sustainable Development Goal target 12.3: halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along the production and supply chains.

Before getting into the main discussion of the initial idea and physical creation of the app, WasteLess Lunch, I want to explain the two fundamentals this app is based around: STEM and sustainability. I’ve grown up in a household rooted in STEM fields, with both of my parents being mechanical engineers, and I’ve been raised to look at things through a lens of science and math. I fostered these foundations by doing things like research programs and taking STEM classes inside and outside of school, mostly involving biotechnological sciences. I first got seriously into sustainability while taking Global Development Studies, where we learn about different components of our daily lives and how these have an impact on our planet. Originally, my main interests were around the sustainability of the physical food on our plates, but that quickly shifted after I realized the severity of the negative impacts that same food has when it ends up in the trash. I was thrilled to be granted the opportunity to create a project that incorporates two of my passions, sustainability and STEM.

Early in our work this semester, I was having a conversation with my father while eating vegetarian tacos at a local Mexican restaurant when I came up with the original idea for Wasteless Lunch.  I mentioned the food waste group's daily email announcement of 180kg of food waste for that prior school day to my dad and he put into perspective just how much food that actually is. Our conversation eventually made its way to a projected food shortage in China and how cities need to be held more accountable for their food production and waste. We looped back around to the question of “Where is all this food waste at school coming from?”. I began by saying that some of it comes from kids not finishing their food, and some from throwing out unsold food.

After mentioning this to my father, we started to bounce ideas off one another until we came to the conclusion that having a preordering system might eliminate a significant amount of food waste because cafeteria cooks would know exactly how much food to prepare. This would eliminate over-preparing some dishes by guessing what students and teachers might buy.  

This conversation inspired me to think creatively, and I decided to make an app to help eliminate food waste and streamline food ordering at school.

Next, I knew I needed to meet with the head of Aramark (our food service provider) at Concordia to learn more about our school’s food waste, and then launch into planning my app.

Despite my love and background in the area of STEM, I really had no idea where to even start when it came to creating and publishing an app. So, in the first few weeks I spent time researching different platforms that can be used to build apps and watching Youtube videos on how to build the certain type of ordering app that I was envisioning. Upon concluding my research, I settled on using a platform called Shopify, an online eCommerce organizer, to keep track of the orders and menu items. I then took the Shopify platform and integrated it into a usable and visual appealing downloadable app through a website called MageNative, which is an online platform that provides open-source code (code that is made available for use or modification as developers see fit) for developers to build apps with different features and integrations like Shopify. MageNative also allows users to download a beta app on their phone to test out their app in real-time.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the beta app of WasteLess Lunch was complete. The app has two components. First, there is the part of the app that a student could use. Students would be able to sign in using their school login information each morning and scroll through the dishes being sold at lunch that day; they would add the ones they wanted to their shopping cart, push checkout, and then receive an email confirmation that their lunch order had been received. At lunch, they would line up for the dishes they ordered, get their food, and pay like they would normally do. It would work as simply as that.

The second side of the app is the admin side, which would allow Aramark employees to interact directly with Shopify to see incoming orders and then cook exactly the number of dishes ordered for that day.  

After I completed designing the app, I worked out the costs involved and arranged meetings with school leaders to investigate funding options. And it was at this point in the process that I ran into some significant challenges.

The question that arose was around how much food waste each day was the result of unsold food compared to discarded food and trimmings/peelings from the preparation of ingredients. For a week, Aramark employees recorded specific types of food waste to try and figure out the answer to this question.

A promo video Alexis made for her Wasteless Lunch App and the importance of eliminating food waste. 

What came next was surprising and disappointing. It turned out that only about 15kg a day of our food waste was coming from unsold meals, whereas the average amount of food being thrown out because of plate waste was about 100kg a day. This meant my app, which was meant to target the smaller amount of food waste, wasn’t economical in terms of cost and time. To fund the app and get everyone switched to a new system would require a commitment of time and resources, and the larger food waste problem would be left unaddressed.

This meant my app would not be adopted and used.

Many people might consider working on a project for 4 months, only for its final implementation to be rejected, to be a failure. However, it is the complete opposite of that. This was the biggest learning experience that I have had in my high school experience thus far. I mainly learned that in the future, when starting a project that is based on data, I will make sure that I avoid assumptions and gather hard data. In addition, I learned about the ideation process of design when thinking about my project, I learned about effective collaboration through working with Aramark and Concordia admin, I learned about different app platform integrations such as Shopify, I learned how to create a cost model and present it to obtain funding,  I became a certified IOS and Android publisher and learned how to put an app on the different app stores, and I learned that there are different measures to success. All skills that I would have never have if I didn't make this app, skills that I can not just use in future school projects, but in life.