Tap an App for Social Good?

Reach in your pocket or purse, feel around a little bit. What do you come across? Perhaps some crumpled up receipts, a piece of gum or two, maybe a multitude of pens. Oh, and probably some annoying loose change that you never have much use for, right? While that cluttering of coins may be more of a nuisance for the credit card using consumers today, those nickels, dimes and quarters can mean much, much more to a person in need of a meal. In fact, only 50 cents is needed to feed one hungry child for one day. Yes, just two quarters.

How One App is Helping Solve the Hunger Crisis

The widespread hunger in the world is an issue almost all of us are aware of, but that not many take seriously or know how to do anything about. Each year, a shocking 9 million people die of hunger. For one social activist, simply knowing such stats wasn’t enough – action was needed. This action was taken through an app.

Sebastian Stricker is head of Share the Meal, an app that allows you to “share a meal” with a simple tap on your smartphone. The app funds and provides meals through the United Nations World Food Programme and also allows those who donate and participate to see where their shared meals go.

“Whenever you use the app to share a meal, we will show you where that goes and we will tell you about the impact it’s having. And, by that, we hope that people not only share with the app, they don’t only do it with their smartphone, but they also do it in real life,” Sebastian said.

Can an App Solve a Problem on the Other Side of the World?

Apps like Share the Meal, which drive social change, are popping up all over the app store, leading to inspiring improvements in issues such as hunger. Share the Meal has already given almost 16 million meals since its start. Like Sebastian, many have seen the need to do something about the hunger crisis and thanks to the digital age that’s upon us, doing so has become even more accessible.

Can an app solve a problem on the other side of the world? Innovators like Sebastian hope that answer is yes. With the problem of hunger specifically, apps could help play a huge role in fixing a crisis that is generally believed to be solvable.

“I think that most people in the development and humanitarian field argue that hunger, or food insecurity and malnutrition as it’s called, are indeed solvable. And, on a purely questionable level, I think if you look at the most basic nature of not having enough to eat in the way that we live today, especially you in the U.S. and in Europe and in many other places as well, it’s hard to understand why, in today’s world, there’s still issues like people not having enough to eat,” Sebastian said.

Understandable or not, there are around 795,000,000 undernourished people in the world. That’s 1 in 9 people. You could be sitting on a subway on your way home from work and chances are that one of the people sitting near you fits into that horrifying statistic. Let that sink in.

More Apps — More Help

Other apps join Share the Meal in fighting to lessen the high number of these statistics. For example, Off the Menu is an app that is mainly intended to give foodies a chance to taste secret menu items from some of the most exciting restaurants in Los Angeles. But, on top of that, each subscription on the app also feeds one child in need a day.

Growing up in a big Italian family, food was always the center of conversation for Lawrence Longo, founder and creator of Off the Menu.

“At breakfast we’d talk about what was for lunch, at lunch we talked about what was for dinner, at dinner we’d talked about would we order late night food? Food was always very prominent, everything we did was around food. I’ve been a foodie my whole life,” Lawrence said.

So that’s why it only made sense that after moving to L.A. 14 years ago to work for a big name producer, Lawrence had the idea to create a foodie centered app after dozens of meetings that revolved around food. Food, though, is just the beginning of what the app offers.

“The concept with me and people at my company was that we always wanted to help. Our goal was we wanted to stop childhood hunger. It was important for us for kids to have a meal, something for breakfast in the morning,” Lawrence said.

As a result of that goal, Off the Menu now donates one meal a day for every subscriber who joins the app, with retail brand UNDEFEATED now matching their donations. This issue is one Lawrence and his team are passionate about.

“There’s so many kids that wake up every day and they have nothing to eat. Our opinion is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. As a kid wanting to go to school, with the first meal of the day you’ll be able to think and stay in school and be more attentive,” he said.

On top of Share the Meal and Off the Menu, there’s also Boxlt4Hunger, an app that allows you to donate any meals you can’t finish at restaurants to local community organizations. Or, there’s FoodFinder, an app that helps kids and families who are hungry find their nearest free meal. Then, there’s also the TangoTab app, which offers free deals on food and drink at restaurants while also donating a meal for every deal a consumer uses.

The Digital Side of Social Activism

It’s no joke that there’s an app for everything. From walking your dog to washing your car, pretty much anything can be done from your smartphone nowadays. Fighting hunger is just another task added to the long list of things an app can do. Like anything though, the use of apps and technology can have its downsides, but people like Sebastian believe the good outweighs the bad.

“We’ve just had an unhappy social revolution here in the U.S. driven by social media, fake news and even hacking by a foreign power. Online activity is powerful no doubt. We’ve seen the negatives, but you’re talking about the positives.” Sebastian said.

Sebastian sees the immense benefits technologies like apps can have on social change and believe it can only be expanded.

“Digital technology, and especially smartphones, are still under leveraged tools in the social impact space,” he said.

Some feel this type of activism isn’t all its cracked up to be, though. The question arises if simply tapping an app can really motivate people to help? For journalist Malcolm Gladwell, the “clicktivist” movement is overrated.

“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life,” Gladwell wrote in an article for The New Yorker.

Gladwell argues that social media activism isn’t real activism, just like Facebook friends aren’t the same as real friends. He says that simply clicking a button that sends a meal to a hungry child isn’t the same as truly risking things, standing up and fighting against an injustice. There’s no violent protests or hours spent on strike on an app like there would be in tangible activist movements. He feels such apps make it convenient and easy for a person to do social good, but chances are these same people wouldn’t be seen out battling police with tear gas.

“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” he wrote.

While Gladwell’s argument has value, he fails to take one thing into account. That’s the fact that even if the people using these apps wouldn’t necessarily be the same people to take to the streets in a protest or fly to Africa to pass out meals, at least the apps are creating a means for high numbers of people to do even a small role in fighting social issues like hunger.

Without these apps, there would be 700,000 fewer people (the number of people using Share the Meal) donating a meal to the hungry. The same people who perhaps wouldn’t actually go out and attend a protest, also would not be even doing something as small as clicking a button to donate food if the apps didn’t exist. Perhaps just tapping on a screen isn’t enough in the end, but isn’t it more than what was previously being done without the apps? Lawrence believes that answer is a definite yes.

“If you’re willing to help, help. Some people are going to want to go on the front lines and some people aren’t. Some people don’t have time to go on the front lines, but they still can donate through monetization. Everything helps, it all helps. We need both. Not everybody in the army is going to be on the front lines. There’s going to be people in the air, you don’t find a war through one type of division. Everyone’s got to get together to make a change,” he said.

Sebastian Stricker was interviewed on the Cult/Tech Podcast produced by Red Cup Agency. Listen to his episode on SoundCloud.

Red Cup Agency is launching a podcast called Future of FoodFollow us on Instagram. This post also appeared on our Medium publication.