A slice of cheese and bread – does that sound like a decent school lunch to you? Child hunger in schools is prevalent but not given enough attention; people may think that because these kids go home at the end of the day to their families, these families can afford school lunches. The truth is, some of these kids are not even going to get dinner either.
At the Good Starts YoungSM Rally in June, hosted by The Allstate Foundation and Peace First, Team Fig pitched an app prototype that would directly address this issue. Team Fig created Food For Thought, a digital application designed to allow parents to anonymously pay for a student’s meal through the pre-paid lunch system, permitting them to not only pay for their own children’s meals but also for the meals of children whose families cannot afford it.
The team is named after the fruit because figs “represent wellness, peace, and prosperity.” AsAmNews was able to interview three of the wonderful young ladies on the project: founder Alyssa Kapasi, Hong Kong native Emma Yang, and Chinese American Fiona Xu. Team Fig’s members all attend the Brearley School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York.
Alyssa Kapasi, 17, is the leader of Team Fig, which is currently working to get non-profit organization status, at which point Kapasi would be CEO. Kapasi’s father is from Uganda and her mother is White and Jewish. “It wasn’t until I began tutoring with Breakthrough NY (BTNY) and seeing that the tutoring service gave sandwiches to the youth because they weren’t sure if they were able to get their lunch or dinner that I personally became more knowledgeable about food insecurity,” Kapasi told AsAmNews.
She had noticed that her students at BTNY were still hungry after being given snacks, so she decided to step in and do something about it. “I began to bring in baked goods to help quell their hunger and I saw their performance and spirits improve,” said Kapasi. “My experience at BTNY is what inspired me to start Food For Thought.”
Chinese American Fiona Xu, 16, is Head of Marketing for Food For Thought. Xu says Food for Thought brings greater awareness about hunger in our schools.
“School lunch debt is often overlooked by both peers and staff alike because school is supposed to be a safe space for students to flourish,” said Xu. “No one expects that student would be shamed by their peers or even worse, the faculty of the school.”
Emma Yang, 13, was born in Hong Kong of Chinese descent and moved to New York 3 years ago. She is Team Fig’s Head of Product and Technology, working on the product-oriented aspects and designing the User Experience.
Yang is hopeful for the future of the project. “My favorite aspect of Food For Thought is how it uses technology in a way that empowers community members who didn’t have the tools to help students impacted by lunch shaming to help family members in their school community and beyond,” said Yang. “We want to expand our system to include other fields where the ‘Pay It Forward’ method can be used, such as with school uniforms, sports gear, etc. The possibilities are endless.”
To elaborate on this concept of food shaming, Kapasi provided some alarming facts: “76% of school districts have school lunch debt according to a 2015 study by the School Nutrition Association, so it is obvious to me that many families cannot afford school lunches,” she noted. “When a child can not afford lunch, they are often shamed by being given an obviously sub-par alternate meal (which can simply be a slice of bread and cheese), by being stamped with a message for their parents to refill their account, or in general, singled out by their school for their financial status.” She hopes the project will minimize the number of youths who receive inadequate meals (sometimes even no meal at all), and ensure that no child would be singled out due to familial financial situations.
The Allstate Foundation had its first Good Starts YoungSM Rally this year, where Team Fig had pitched the prototype for Food For Thought. At the rally, 10 youth teams from around the U.S. gathered to develop solutions to pressing social issues, competing for a $10,000 grant. For making it to the final round, Team Fig received $2,000 for Food For Thought’s innovative solution to hunger in the New York City school system.
“It was uplifting to be surrounded by other civic minded people my age who believe that the world can be a better place,” Kapase said of the Good Starts YoungSM Rally. “Allstate and the Peace First organization, the hosts of the rally, did a wonderful job of providing support and guidance for all teams present.”
Laura Freveletti, Senior Programs Officer of The Allstate Foundation, looks forward to the rally’s potential of being an annual event. She notes that these issues that youths are addressing are critical issues that affect all of us. “These are serious issues that individuals in our community face that we can all be able to lend a hand to support,” Freveletti told AsAmNews.
She notes that all of The Allstate Foundation’s programs focus on empowering the people they help. The Youth Empowerment branch of The Allstate Foundation allows kids to develop their social emotional learning skills and empowers them through teaching important life skills and qualities: goal setting, perseverance, resilience, conflict resolution, communication, and interpersonal skills.
“The mission of the Allstate Foundation’s Good Starts YoungSM initiative is to empower youth to reach their full potential, serve causes greater than themselves and make the world a better place,” stated Freveletti. “The programs we support help develop social emotional learning skills, which research shows is critical to improving youth’s social relationships, increasing their attachment to school and motivation to learn, and reducing anti-social, violent and drug-using behaviors. In particular, we support educational and service-learning programs through nonprofit partners including WE Charity, Junior Achievement and Facing History and Ourselves.”
This initiative continues to support groups like Team Fig – Team Fig’s girls all share a passion for helping those in need, and Food For Thought is an ongoing culmination of their desires to address a pressing social issues amongst New York City schools. “Whenever I learned about a problem like homelessness, poverty or hunger, I would always want to help and change it.” Xu told AsAmNews. “However, I never knew how I could and the most I thought I could do was just to spread awareness. Being with Team Fig has helped me to realize that anyone is able to make a difference.”
She notes the difficulty younger people have trying to implement their ideas into fields dominated by adults. “We are always encouraged to help change the world for the better, but we are less respected as teenagers because we are not adults,” said Xu.”However, participating in the Peace First Challenge has finally given us an opportunity to make a real impact and to show that we do not have to wait until we are adults to start.”
Kapasi acknowledged this problem as well. “Too often youth are told that in the future we will be able to change the world,” Kapasi noted. The purpose of Team Fig is to change the world for the better now.”
Yang, as the youngest one on the team of high school students, also shared her perspective on Team Fig and on youth involvement. “I love how Team Fig is made up of students from a wide range of interests, “stated Yang. “My personal field of interest is in technology and applying technology to social impact. My teammates’ backgrounds range from design to law and politics, and it is so inspiring to see how we, as high school students form so many different backgrounds, can be empowered to create something that can empower people in our community on any scale.”
Kapasi and Yang met through CE Week NY, New York’s largest technology show, for the ’10 Under 20’ award – Kapasi had received the award in 2015, and Yang received it in 2016, when Kapasi was a judge.
Yang is involved in other projects as well. “I am passionate about computer science and advocate for girls in STEM,” she wrote. “In addition to Food For Thought, I have also created an app called Timeless, which uses artificial intelligence to empower Alzheimer’s patients to live better daily lives.”
Also on Team Fig are Ivy Mao (age 16), Maya Whites (age 14), and Gabrielle Rich (who is currently not active on the team).
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