Nearly two years after it was created to provide assistance for food insecure students, the meal-sharing app Swipes is no longer operational. Now, First-Generation Low-Income Partnership National, Inc., a group headed by Columbia students, is looking to collaborate with the founder of a nearly identical app created by an NYU student in May 2013, which has seen steady use by the university’s student body.
Both Swipes and the NYU-based app, called Share Meals, function under the premise of matching recipients with donors who must physically swipe them into a dining hall. But unlike Swipes, Share Meals’ design accounts for individual demographics to encourage recurring donations, matching more students with meals and drawing users back to the app. By last May, over 1,200 meals had been donated through the app.
Swipes’ decline stemmed from a combination of factors including miscommunication between the councils during the app’s rollout, technological snags with location services, and an overall lack of usership.
After being heralded as a possible solution to Columbia’s food insecurity problem last year, Swipes faced major scrutiny from General Studies Student Council, Columbia College Student Council, and FLIP, who identified a host of functional and developmental issues that hindered the app’s ability to support food-insecure students. After a period of conflict between Swipes and FLIP, Swipes has become inactive, the servers of both its website and app having been shut down.
"I used Swipes last year to donate meals because of the first-year meal plan, and it was definitely a pain to use even to try to give swipes,” Cecilia Sena, CC ’19, said. “I think both [Swipes and EMF] are and were underutilized.”
Over a year before Swipes’ inception, NYU graduate student Jon Chin founded Share Meals after seeing a post made by a food-insecure student in the NYU Secrets Facebook group. A meal-sharing platform similar to Swipes, Share Meals became effective almost immediately after Chin launched the app.
“We operated only within the last seven days of that school year,” Chin said. “In that time we were able to match 400 students with swipes, and we actually had 400 additional swipes that were donated that we couldn’t find people to take. Even from the start, we had a huge surplus.”
Chin credits Share Meals’ success to a well-designed matching algorithm and a user-friendly interface. Unlike Swipes, Share Meals runs on an algorithm called CakePHP that optimizes meal sharing by logging the time slots and locations during which each user is free to give or receive swipes. Swipes did not rely on such detailed information, instead sending notifications on an individual basis to those with the app open whenever a meal request was filed.
Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year, during which Chin brought on three new members to the previously solo project, Share Meals managed to bring on 1,469 new users who offered 467 swipes, 386 of which were matched with students in need. Building upon this success, Chin plans to release a third iteration of the app that attempts to fix major issues, such as seasonal fluctuations in swipe donations.
“Basically, everybody donates in the last two or three weeks of the semester, and they donate in excess. Most students have 100-plus meal swipes left over, and they give them all thinking they can help out 100 students. But the main difficulty is finding food for the rest of the semester,” said Chin. “We noticed this trend, and so we are integrating free food events into our new iteration, which allows students to see where there is leftover food from an event or if there is an ongoing event where they can get some food and help reduce NYU food waste.”
After Chin gave a TED Talk about Share Meals this April at the University of Missouri, Share Meals began to receive national attention from universities who wanted to implement this platform in their dining halls. Chin shares this goal, saying that he envisioned Share Meals as an idea that could be applied across universities.
“From the outset, even when I was programming the first line of code three years ago, I wanted what I created to be universally accepted that could be easily carried over to other universities,” Chin said. “So long as the policies and meal swipes are similar to the system of NYU, a lot of the code should be the same, and we’d love to roll it out and work with universities like Columbia to get that running.”
Following the decline of Swipes, FLIP National and Share Meals have been in communication for the past year regarding how the app can be extended to Columbia and other universities nationwide, according to Chin. Although Chin said he has received an offer to join FLIP National’s advisory board, the extent of their intended partnership remains unclear.
“We don’t have a concrete timeline yet,” Chin said. “The idea is out there, and both parties are amenable, but nothing concrete has been done yet.”
In a statement sent to Spectator, Nina Bechmann, GS ’19 and FLIP National’s director of communications, confirmed that the organization is supporting Share Meals’ efforts at NYU and collaborating with Chin. Bechmann declined to elaborate further on the nature of their collaboration.
Aaron Holmes contributed reporting.