Improving Food Access

Developing an end-to-end process that brings donated food to residents of affordable housing communities, via on-site fridges.

Our client, Joint Venture, is currently piloting this system in two communities.

User research
Participatory Design
Service Design

​Jan - June 2021
20 weeks

MBA Students: Taylor Phillips, Yvonne Ploder​, Mireille van Dongen


I worked as a UX designer for the nonprofit Joint Venture, which manages Santa Clara County's Edible Food Recovery Program. My team was asked to design a new modality of food distribution in order to increase food access in the Bay Area.

Our solution is to place fridges in affordable housing communities and stock them with donated food from commercial kitchens and groceries, so that residents have easy access to healthy food.

​I additionally prototyped a communication system that would enable food recovery organizations to monitor the fridges and receive feedback from housing staff.

Initial Research

Over the course of the project, we interviewed over 40 food generators, food recovery organizations, and people experiencing food insecurity. ​​​

We started off our research by reading articles, creating stakeholder maps, and volunteering with local food recovery organizations in order to experience their services firsthand.

Stakeholder map

Volunteering at a local food bank

Research Findings and Solution

From our initial conversations, we learned that:

Many people who are experiencing food insecurity have jobs and cannot get to distribution sites that are only open during their work day.

We brainstormed potential solutions and graphed them based on how well they fulfilled our design principles and key constraints. We decided that putting fridges in affordable housing communities would be a convenient and dignified solution to this issue. ​

Listing out our design principles and constraints

Graphing potential solutions

Co-designing the Service

Once we settled on the fridge idea, we used co-design to flesh out its implementation. ​In this co-design session with our partner from Joint Venture, we mapped out what each step of the the service might look like:

Co-designed service map of our process

​We also visited a number of affordable housing communities and used conversational prototypes as an interview tool. Being able to point at images helped our users visualize what we were talking about, and also helped when there was a language barrier.

Talking with residents of an affordable housing community.

​Conversational prototypes of different types of fridges and time slots

Prototyping a Communication Channel

While my teammates worked on defining the system's food safety protocol, I designed a communication channel that would:

  • Help FROs understand when and how much food to deliver to each site
  • Enable housing communities to give regular feedback to FROs


In the current landscape, dispatchers at an FRO have to call food distribution sites to see if they can accept a food donation. If they aren't able to reach anyone by phone, the FRO has to blindly guess which sites to drive to — leading to wasted food and time.

Staff at food distribution sites also want more regular communication with FROs, so that they can give feedback about the food they are receiving.

Communication gap between FROs and the staff at food distribution sites

Low-fidelity prototypes

​I made different prototypes in order to get quick feedback from FROs and property managers. This prototype envisions a text-based communication channel that FROs could message for status updates from each site:

Low-fidelity prototyping of text-based communication channel


We showed these low-fidelity prototypes to staff members at an FRO and property managers at different affordable housing communities. We learned:

  • Dispatchers want at least 3 fridge status types: Full, Partially Full, and Empty
  • The FRO display can just be a spreadsheet, because there's usually one dispatcher per org who tells each driver where to go
  • ​The system should accommodate different schedules. For example: a community full of unemployed seniors would operate on a different schedule
  • The system should be easy to adopt. The number of people staffing the fridge could vary and might be a rotating group of volunteers

Getting feedback from staff at an FRO

​Visiting a Property Manager at an affordable housing community

Final Prototype

For the final design, we decided to move away from a text-based system because it would require more upkeep. I used Google Sheets to create a database that would automatically update based on Google form submissions.

A staff member/volunteer at each affordable housing community would access this form via a QR code or tinyurl posted near the fridge, as part of an end-of-day cleaning routine. Then, the information they enter about the fridge's status would update a Google Sheet used by dispatchers.​

Form and spreadsheet that communicates the status of the community's fridge to dispatcher

Moving Forward

We've now handed off this project to our client, Joint Venture.​ Our handoff included a detailed implementation plan of our end-to-end process, which is summarized in the flowchart below. Each step was informed by our research, food safety regulations, and co-design sessions.

Our end-to-end process, which brings recovered food to residents of affordable housing communities​

Since our handoff, Joint Venture has received funding from the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health and is currently piloting the process in two affordable housing communities. The pilot program has been a success and gives residents consistent access to healthy, quality food: