UPPER EAST SIDE — A group of teens want to turn the tables on school lunch for students in need.
Six students and alumni from the Brearley School, who range in age from 13 to 18, have invented a smartphone app allowing donors to purchase school lunches for those who cannot afford them. They want users to be able to contribute with a tap of a finger by next school year and have launched a fundraising campaign to finish the job.
The app, "Food for Thought," uses the "pay it forward" concept of spreading acts of kindness anonymously, explained Alyssa Kapasi, 17, a Brearley School senior who teamed up with her friends to create it.
"Most parents already pay for their child’s lunch meals online, [so] by keeping with a similar platform, it will be easy for parents or donors to use and operate Food for Thought," she said.
Their plan is to get a beta version up by the 2018-'19 school year so they can test it in three or more schools.
Kapasi, 17, along with her friends, Fiona Xu, 16, Ivy Mao, 16, Emma Yang, 13, Gabrielle Rich, 18, and Maya Whites, 14, already won a $2,000 grant from the Allstate Foundation "Good Starts Young" competition for their project this past school year.
To become a finalist, teams of students between the ages of 13 and 24 were asked to develop innovative solutions to social issues or needs in their communities.
The teens selected "Team Fig" for their name — since figs can represent wellness and prosperity — and competed against 287 projects.
"Team Fig is extremely impressive," said Laura Freveletti, the senior program officer at the Allstate Foundation. "They saw a need — youth going hungry — and took it upon themselves to do something about it. Alyssa ... and her team knew that to combat food inequality they needed to create an innovative solution that was also scalable. Their idea of providing parents an easy to use method to pay for lunches for those in need is ingenious. It’s a wonderful example of how we can all pay it forward."
By raising an additional $1,000 through their GoFundMe campaign, the group hopes to have the app up and running by this coming school year.
While all the app's creators attend the Brearley School or have in the past, they got involved in the project on their own accord, after Kapasi volunteered with Breakthrough New York as a tutor. The tutoring organization served sandwiches to underprivileged kids while she was there, leading her to the realization that she had to do something about it.
"I was shocked and horrified," Kapasi said, adding that her tutoring work brought the issue to the fore. "Whenever one hears about hungry children it is usually in the context of a third world country."
About one in four city children come from food-insecure households, and roughly 76 percent of school districts in the country have school lunch debt, she said.
Her friends jumped on board when she approached them about participating in the challenge.
Xu said the app, which the group has worked on for roughly a year now, will be life-changing once its finished.
“I am optimistic about our ability to reach many schools and parents because we are getting plenty of help from the Allstate Foundation and because we have a strong team and a strong idea,” she said. “We hope to have come up with a way to ease the lives of those affected.”