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This app lets hungry people secure their next meal with a text

Rather than waiting in line at a food bank, someone can just text the word “HUNGRY” to Bento, choose a nearby restaurant, and pick up a meal.

This app lets hungry people secure their next meal with a text
[Photos: anunay rai/Unsplash, Spencer Davis/Unsplash]

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What drives the team at Not Impossible Labs, a tech incubator with the tagline “Nothing Is Impossible Forever,” is indignation at the “absurdities” in our society: those aspects of the world that just don’t make sense, and which leave certain groups of people excluded. “That feeling of revulsion and repulsion is what we call absurdities,” says CEO and cofounder Mick Ebeling, and those absurdities spur them to deploy “tech for the sake of humanity” to help build solutions. They’ve developed products to allow deaf people to experience music, children in South Sudan to use prosthetic limbs, and people with ALS to speak to loved ones using only eye movements.

Another absurdity? Hunger in America. “Food insecurity is the poster child of what we refer to as an absurdity,” says COO and cofounder Adam Dole. “There’s 50 million people in our country that don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And yet, we’re the wealthiest country in the world.”

Mick Ebeling and Adam Dole [Photos: courtesy Not Impossible Labs]
On today’s episode of the World Changing Ideas podcast, Ebeling and Dole discuss the product they’ve built to address this monumental issue, and which has become such a focus for the lab that they’ve developed it into a spin-off company: Bento, a 2021 World Changing Ideas honoree.

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During the pandemic, as schools have shut down and people have lost incomes, more and more Americans are having to worry about where their next meals will come from. But there’s plenty of food in America, so the Bento team contemplated how to get that food supply routed to the people who need it. And they wanted to make the process of getting that food easy to navigate, unlike applying for SNAP benefits or finding food banks to line up at. “How do you create something that requires the least amount of effort, for the most amount of impact?” Ebeling asks.

What emerged was an easy, text-based system. People in need of food are enrolled using databases from nonprofits and government agencies like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and L.A. Care, whose work is already dedicated to serving those populations. Individuals simply text “HUNGRY” to a number; during a five-step text process, they choose a local restaurant or grocery store and select a meal, and then pick it up when it’s ready. They can rely on the system for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner they need, for as long as they need.

For restaurants, participating in Bento requires no behavioral changes, as the process is integrated with their ordering systems—so sleekly that, after a year of Bento’s existence, 98% of restaurant staff didn’t even know they’d been serving the food insecure. It’s also easy to deploy; in one instance, an organization signed up and had its first person served within 48 hours.

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The ease of use also allows people to get their meals in a dignified way. The team found that many people would skip meals if they had to line up conspicuously at somewhere like a food bank, embarrassed to be seen by others in their community. “Why not create a situation where their dignity can be preserved, where they’re just seen as anybody else?” Ebeling asks. “Why do we have to put them into scenarios where they’re called out as ‘those people’?”

On the podcast, they also discuss how they can flexibly adapt to people’s nutritional needs. “If you’re a Bento user, you’re able to declare that you’re a vegan, or you’re vegetarian, or any dietary constraints you have,” Ebeling says. That feature is especially important when many food-insecure people have chronic health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

Bento is able to do this more targeted, complex work due to its partnership with Genpact, a professional services firm. Bento uses Genpact’s platform, and its data-driven insights and analytics, to guide it toward a better user experience. “Creating medically tailored meals in a really efficient way is not an easy thing to do,” Dole says, “so they’re deploying their superpowers to make it more effective and efficient for us be able to deliver.”

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Addressing hunger is about more than filling a momentary need; hunger affects people’s entire lives. “When you’re hungry, nothing else matters,” Ebeling says. “My future is the pit in my stomach.” The overall goal is to eventually “graduate” members off Bento, so that they can be relieved of that constant stress, and go on to concentrate on satisfying the other areas of their lives in the long term: “To have their lives fulfilled,” Ebeling says, “and have them be happy.”

You can listen and subscribe to World Changing Ideas on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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