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Community Spotlight: Student Innovation Meets Community Need

Summer break for students means plenty of time outside, carefree days playing at the park and hours of riding bikes with friends. But for many kids in Indiana, it also means a break from easily accessible, nutritious meals. More than 400,000 students in Indiana take advantage of free or reduced school lunches during the school year. So how can kids in the Indianapolis area access healthy meals when school isn’t in session? The Indy Parks Summer Servings program. The program currently serves about 5,000 meals a day, meaning about 200,000 meals per summer. With 100-140 sites each summer, the goal is to create even more sites and spread the reach to students who need it.

The Summer Servings program provides high-quality meals to anyone 18 years old and younger in the Indianapolis area. Meals are provided throughout Marion County at certified serving sites to any student. There is no registration and no strings attached. Kids can simply show up and eat a healthy meal twice a day. Unfortunately, this program goes largely underutilized. Only 20% of students are actually taking advantage of these meals, which leads to the alarming question, where are kids getting meals during the summer?

This question has been a challenge to Indy Parks Coordinator Milele Kennedy. The team at Indy Parks and supporting organizations have been working tirelessly to spread awareness and make it as easy as possible for kids to receive their meals. An innovative solution to this problem eventually came to Milele through an unlikely source – a 15-year-old Park Tudor student named Cole Momcilovich.

Summer Innovation Institute

In the summer of 2016, Cole Momcilovich was participating in the Innovators Institute, a summer program offering opportunities for high schoolers to gain hands-on experience in the world of entrepreneurship and innovation. Students look within their own community to solve problems and design solutions. As part of the Innovators Institute program, students meet with community leaders and organizations and are then presented with a challenge or problem. At the end of the program, students pitch their ideas to a panel of business leaders. Students with the best ideas are rewarded $1,500 seed money to fund their ideas.

Milele was asked to come in and speak with students about the challenges facing student meals during the summer. She outlined the program and the challenges, underutilization of the program, especially among older students, and the goals for the organization. A few weeks later, Milele got the news that one student had taken on this challenge and had an idea to make the program easier for students to take advantage of. This was the beginning of a long journey for Cole and Milele to get more kids involved in the program and serve students who don’t have access to healthy, reliable meals.

About the Meals On The Go App

Being a teenager himself, Cole knew the best way to connect with other kids is through their phones. The app was the perfect solution for reaching kids where they are already active. According to Pew Research Center, 37 percent of teenagers age 13 to 17 have or have access to a smartphone. 88 percent of teenagers, age 13 to 17 have or have access to a cellphone and 91 percent of teenagers, age 13 to 17, access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices at least occasionally. [Source]

“’I came up with the idea of an app that would show the user what was on the menu, as well as, where and when they can access the free nutritional meals based on their location or zip code. My app will make it easier for kids to access free nutritional meals during the summer months, as well as after school.”

This idea ended up earning Cole the $1,500 seed money for the app, but unfortunately, that was not enough to get the app into development.

After Innovators Institute

After the Innovator camp was over Cole was still determined to make his app, but needed more funding. Milele saw this dedication to the project and was struck by how passionate Cole was to see the app through.

“Through searching for funders, Cole never gave up on his application. He continued to work tirelessly through the next year of his high school career, never giving up on his mission to complete the app and see it come to fruition”

After months of calling and reaching out to investors and organizations who might be able to help, Cole was still without the backing he needed to create the app. As Cole persisted, people in the Indianapolis and Fishers communities began talking and trying to find a way to help make this a reality and help thousands of kids reach the daily nutrition they need. Through a mutual connection at Park Tudor, Cole was introduced to Eleven Fifty Academy COO Bob Alcorn. Being that Eleven Fifty teaches coding skills and has a wide network of alumni and professionals with the skills needed to develop the app, this connection was exactly what the app needed to get off the ground.

Finding the Perfect Development Partner

After learning about the app, Bob took action to find the perfect partner for Cole to bring this app to development. He knew just the person to take on this kind of project with the passion to make it something incredible. Bob introduced Cole to Auri Rahimzadeh, a software developer and instructor at Eleven Fifty.

“I was one of the first instructors at Eleven Fifty and still teach courses. I like getting involved in startups and projects that benefit the community. When Cole told me about his idea, I thought it would be a great, impactful project to be a part of.”

Auri has years of experience in development and the skill set to help Cole create the app. Auri is passionate about serving the community, and often takes on tasks to serve others, like the award-winning City of Fishers CrimeWatch App. After they met, Auri and Cole started discussing the app, who it could help, and how it could come together – and a partnership was immediate.

The Meals On The Go App

As they started planning the app, Auri shared his experience working with kids through the Big Brothers program. He knew that many kids had smartphones, but not all had access to data at all times. So Auri and Cole made the app available both on and offline. Users can see the times and locations without using data for those who don’t have consistent Wi-Fi.

Another consideration in building the app was the distance to meal sites. The app features a built-in search tool that allows users to search for sites based on location. It also gives directions to the site on the mobile device. Kids can use the navigation to safely get to the site. Since the meal program does operate during specific times during the day, Cole and Auri built in time listings for all of the sites, as well as an alert system students can set to remind them of meal times.

Each screen features a bright and attractive icon to make interacting with the app enjoyable. Students can look through all of the meal sites and choose the best location based on proximity and time.

The Future

Looking toward the future, the app is built to scale for growth. Auri and Cole hope to see more people use the app and more kids taking advantage of healthy, available meals. Currently, there’s nothing else out there like it and it serves an enormous need in the community. Milele is also looking forward to seeing the app used by students.

“The app is really impactful because it requires nothing from the students. It won’t track their data, it’s free, requires no registration, and parents can feel safe knowing their kids are using this app to access healthy, nutritious food. Giving these kids access to the information in the palm of their hands is much more accessible than flyers or even a website. This is really going to have an impact on how we reach students. It’s never been done like this before.”

The Meals On The Go app is already gaining attention from other organizations. There is a conference next year and Cole and Auri have been invited to present their app and give people a look at what it can do and who it serves. The application can be used for many organizations and the opportunities are endless. Milele also sees a big benefit for other food programs.

“The program, and this app, gives us the opportunity to spread the word about the after school meal program and students can use the app all year long to find meals.”

Innovation in the Community

The entire summer meal program will benefit from Cole’s hard work, and this experience has made a big impact on Milele as well. “When I think about the future of our community, I look at Cole and get inspired. Cole and young people like him aren’t afraid to step out of the box and say “I can make a difference” and then follow through. I don’t have to have all of the answers all of the time. We can work as a community and find answers to complex problems. Cole is part of that change. At 16 he has accomplished so much, I can only imagine what he will do next.”

There are plenty of future upgrade ideas for the application, one being to incentivize the program. The idea is to reward students using the program by tracking meals through the app, and giving prizes for healthy and consistent eating. The rewards would be things students could really use, with ideas ranging from school supplies to a bike. Incentives would keep students eating regularly, taking advantage of nutritious food and engaging with school staff through the entire year. Thanks to Cole and Auri’s innovation and dedication to putting something helpful out into the community, more kids will have access to food this summer and for summers to come.

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