From left: Ben Katznelson, Lee-Jay Cluskey-Belanger, Danny Williamson and Prof. Dan Gillis

The next time you buy groceries, don’t forget to pick up something for the food bank. Using Farm to Fork, a new website being developed by students in Prof. Dan Gillis’s computer science class, you can find out exactly what the food bank needs and add it to your shopping list.

When Gillis and his friend Danny Williamson were looking for a community-based project to work on, they approached Linda Hawkins, director of U of G’s Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship. She suggested several projects along with Anne Bergen and Erin Nelson of the Research Shop.

“The one that grabbed our attention was this problem with food banks,” says Gillis. “The issue is the people in town who provide the food security tend to have a problem getting good-quality food for the people who need it.” Fresh fruits and vegetables are often in short supply, which means that food banks are limited to providing mostly processed foods.

Last fall, Gillis taught a third-year computer science class called “Systems Analysis and Design in Applications,” in which students are assigned to develop an app for a client, usually the professor. When he heard about the food bank’s dilemma, he thought, “This is perfect. I can give this to my students.”

As with any real-world project, the students consulted with their client – in this case, representatives of the Guelph-Wellington Food Access Working Group – to better understand their problem and address their needs. Using that information, the students developed two prototypes of a website that connects food donors with local food banks and pantries.

“The students ran with it,” says Gillis. “It’s absolutely amazing how much work they put into it. Of all the years that I’ve taught, I’ve never had a class attend so well. I think the attendance rate was about 97 per cent.”

Fourth-year students Ben Katznelson and Lee-Jay Cluskey-Belanger combined the best of both prototypes as part of their senior undergraduate research project. They will beta-test the website this summer before launching it in the fall, followed by an app.

Farm to Fork’s social media sites have generated “phenomenal” feedback, says Gillis, adding that more than 500,000 people have learned about the project through re-tweets on Twitter and likes on Facebook pages. He says some followers have suggested the website could become a provincial or even national program. “The community response has been fantastic.”

Gillis and Williamson are now raising $15,000 for a new server and to pay the two students who will work on the website over the summer. So far, they have raised just over $1,300, and they welcome any donations. The average Canadian throws out about $28 worth of food per week, or $1,500 a year per household. Ten households could fund Farm to Fork, says Gillis.

“The problem is that, because it’s not a typical research project — because it’s community-engaged — trying to get funding for that from regular sources is not going to happen.”

Gillis and the two students have been invited to discuss Farm to Fork at CUExpo 2013 in Corner Brook, N.L., in June. They will also speak at U of G’s Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference May 1.

These types of projects are more common in humanities and social science classes, but that didn’t deter Gillis from involving his computer science students. “To me it seems like the right thing to do, and the more I see students involved, the more I want to see this project to completion.”

The Farm to Fork website asks users to state which day they shop for groceries, so they can receive an electronic reminder of the items needed by their local food bank. When donors select which items they will bring, the list is automatically updated.

Gillis says the website helps food banks avoid receiving too many items they don’t have room to store, and helps ensure that fresh fruits and vegetables are delivered before they spoil. He also hopes the website will encourage people to donate to food banks throughout the year, not just at holidays. “Donations drop off significantly at certain points of the year, and this should help alleviate that.”

Williamson says, “If we can add one-per-cent more food and 10-per-cent more fresh food into the food bank system, that’s a huge win. We’re also trying to help people change this idea that, if you’re going to attack a problem like hunger or poverty, it’s this giant problem that you can’t solve without this giant solution, but if you can move some things in the right direction, that’s a win.”

Gillis and Williamson agree that helping students learn while helping the community is the ultimate goal of community-engaged initiatives like Farm to Fork.