Pantry Pal

Pantry Pal revolutionizes food accessibility by providing low-income, first-generation (LIFG) college students with a platform to access free, healthy, and nutritious food options near them and foster a network that destigmatizes food insecurity. As a result, Pantry Pal eases their financial difficulties and improves their chances of college success.

Problem Background  

According to the First Generation Foundation, 89% of low-income, first-generation (LIFG) college students in the U.S. leave college within six years without a degree. Financial difficulties are among the significant factors leading to this retention rate. Financial aid packages may cover most student tuition and substantial room and board fees. However, they traditionally do not address the financial realities of LIFG students, who may struggle to afford more minor expenses that we often take for granted. It is found that 36% of students experience food insecurity and often give up food to pay for other expenses like housing, textbooks, etc. In our research survey findings with both college students and college graduates on the topic of food accessibility, our team found that:

  • 62.6% would “often” or “occasionally” worry about having enough food to eat each week 
  • 56.3% would “often” or “occasionally” skip meals because they couldn’t afford to purchase food 
  • 75.1% felt embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help in accessing food resources 
  • Among the biggest challenges faced by low-income, first-generation college students in accessing healthy and nutritious foods, 56.3% said a “lack of financial resources,” and 31.3% reported “the shame and stigma associated with food insecurity.”

With the continued economic burdens placed on LIFG students, the rise of inflation, and the reduction of pandemic-era SNAP benefits for college students, we seek to address the issue of food accessibility to improve retention and graduation rates among LIFG college students and, subsequently, close the opportunity gap for some of the most vulnerable, underserved communities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Problem Statement  

  1. How might we ease financial hardships for LIFG college students so they can prioritize their studies without worrying about basic necessities? 
  2. How might we remove the stigma around food insecurity to encourage LIFG college students to seek out resources without fear or judgement?

Research Method

To truly build a product that would help low-income first-generation college students, we conducted primary research by interviewing current and recent graduates who identified as low-income first-generation. Additionally, we used surveys, a form of secondary research, to gather quantitative data. Surveys helped gather data amongst low-income first-generation students who agreed to do the interview, but some declined. The survey included questions about how often students worry about having enough food to eat weekly, whether students skip out on meals due to insufficient funds for the purchase, whether they can eat foods that offer great nutritional value, etc. Additionally, the survey included questions on resources such as food banks on their campus or community and if they felt embarrassed or discouraged about utilizing these resources.

Research Insights

User pain points

As low-income first-generation students attend college, they often apply for and receive financial aid from the government. This aid aims to assist with students' monetary challenges, such as housing, college tuition, school fees, books, etc. Despite receiving this aid, more is needed to cover expenses such as nutritious food or health care. 

At first, students may think the initiate aid they receive is enough to cover all their expenses. Still, over time they quickly realize it is not enough and begin to worry about how they can attend school and work to afford the daily food costs. This quickly turns into students becoming food insecure and developing feelings of shame for not being able to afford food. This burden quickly leads to feelings of guilt, compounded by students sacrificing time attending lectures, office hours, and study time; to work to pay for their next meals.   

User Feedback

Users have provided valuable feedback regarding various aspects of the app. Firstly, many users expressed the need for a more comprehensive and user-friendly tutorial that effectively provides clearer instructions on navigating and utilizing the app's features. They highlighted the importance of step-by-step guidance, especially for new users, to maximize their experience and fully utilize the app's functionality. Secondly, users appreciated including food pantry information in the app but suggested adding specific opening times to enhance its usefulness. This improvement would enable individuals to plan their visits more effectively and ensure they can access the necessary resources at the right times. Lastly, several users commented on the map displayed on the app, suggesting a better color scheme for improved readability and visual appeal. They emphasized the importance of clear and contrasting colors that are easy to interpret, ensuring a seamless navigation experience. These user insights provide valuable guidance for enhancing the app's usability, convenience, and overall user satisfaction.

Landing on the Solution

If Yelp and food banks merged, it would create our solution, Pantry Pal. Pantry Pal is an innovative platform allowing disadvantaged students like Xiomara to explore over 15,000 food organizations nationwide. They can enter their zip code or address with a simple interface to discover nearby options and easily access healthy, affordable meals.

Pantry Pal also provides up-to-date information on local food pantries, including the hours of operation, directions, contact details, and much more. It’s transforming how students struggling with food insecurity can connect to food resources with convenience and dignity.

Low Fidelity Mockups 

High Fidelity Mockups

Usability Test Findings 

Our team conducted a round of remote moderated usability tests with 5 target users. The usability tests revealed both strengths and areas for improvement in the Pantry Pal app. Participants had varied experiences and provided valuable feedback. Here are our major takeaways:

  • Regarding the tutorial, users found it difficult to locate and navigate. They wanted more information on how the app supports education. Enhancements are needed for accessibility and clarity.
  • The home page received mixed feedback, with participants suggesting additional pages before the map and improvements to the search bar. A better navigation system is desired.
  • Finding food pantries was generally easy, thanks to icons. However, participants wanted filters and direct time information on the card view.
  • Pantry profile pages were appreciated, but layout issues and confusion with map visuals were mentioned. Better presentation and organization are needed.
  • Feedback included design improvements, such as changing map color and adding engaging elements. Suggestions included offering affordable food options, additional pages, and partnerships with listed organizations.

Overall, addressing tutorial accessibility, home page layout, search bar visibility, filtering options, and design enhancements will enhance user understanding and satisfaction with the app.

Implementation Details - Devs

Technical implementation

  1. We are currently hosting Pantry Pal on Heroku( Front-end) and Atlas( Back-end)
  2. To build the Pantry Pal web app, we used the following techstack:
  • Frontend: React, Javascript, Tailwind, HTML, CSS
  • Backend: Flask, Python 
  1. High level journey of a request:
  • The user reaches page ->
  • Web browser geolocates user->
  • Queries backend API based on params->
  • Backend fetches and returns database results based on query

Technical challenges

  1. What was the hardest part of development?
  • The issue is pulling organization data based on location. If we had more time, we would like to build querying functionality that would allow us to pull organizations based on proximity, such as feet, rather than a specific city.
  1. Does your app have any scaling issues?
  • There could be room for improvement, such as server-side, but no major scaling issues.
  1. Current Design
  • Technical Tradeoffs: There was no time for implementing complex database queries based on coordinates, but that left us time to work on small bugs and our UI.

Future Steps

As we continue to update our app, we plan to advance features to enhance user experience and cater to their specific needs. Implementing database queries based on user coordinates, we go beyond relying on the user’s city information; this ensures more accurate and relevant search results, allowing us to provide tailored results based on a precise location. Additionally, our server-side caching optimizes response times, enabling faster retrieval of data and improving overall performance. 

Users now have the ability to save organizations to their favorites list, enabling quick access to preferred choices, Furthermore, our platform records past clicked organizations, allowing users to resist and track their engagement history easily. We have incorporated a 5-star rating method and reviews to promote transparency and assist others in decision-making, empowering users to share their experiences and contribute to a vibrant community discussion. Through these features, we aim to break stigmas, foster dialogue, and create a platform that prioritizes user satisfaction and engagement.


Product Manager Learnings:

Robert Adkins

As a product manager, it is always a good practice to define your problem early on to ensure you focus on one core problem. To discover one core problem, product managers develop product strategies by conducting surveys to understand market trends and customer needs. 

Cross-functional collaboration and communication are also two of the most important learnings. Relaying clear, direct messages and the overall vision from our designer to our developers was essential. At the same time, we negotiate tradeoffs between our developers and designers.  Lastly, I loved talking to the designer about creating hifi mockups and wireframes and learning the developers' process from both a front-end and back-end perspective.

Designer Learnings:

Joel Yap

As a product designer, following the simple but vital premise “focus on the user and all else will follow” proved highly beneficial in this project. Throughout this experience, I’ve gained valuable insights on how to address complex, unmet problems using various strategies, including asking thoughtful questions, conducting thorough user research, continuously testing and iterating, and advocating for and prioritizing the users' needs at every stage of the process. In doing so, our team was able to develop a genuinely human-centered solution while remaining aligned with our overarching mission.

Developer Learnings:

George Ceja

As the front-end developer, I learned that pairing programming with another developer you identify with can open up worlds for your programming skillset. I learned that doing more planning and brainstorming, in the beginning will save you time.  Techniques like Moscow and others are worth doing right so the whole group is on the same page. 

Developers Learnings:

Adam Robson


As the back-end developer, I learned that discussing vital features helped us get to our MVP faster with fewer bugs. I saw a few bugs during the process because only 2 features were being built once. It’s important to focus on the core model of the product and leave nice-to-haves towards the end.

Full Team Learning