The video billboard in Times Square is showing New Yorkers what they can buy for 50 cents: 90 seconds on a sightseeing tour, for example, or 1.8 seconds with street performer The Naked Cowboy, who can often be seen at New York’s most famous tourist spot. Or they could provide a malnourished child with food for a day.
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The Times Square ad introduced Americans to ShareTheMeal, a smartphone app from a Berlin startup that’s an initiative of the United Nations World Food Programme. The video itself was donated by the UN – the startup has no money for marketing. But even without a huge ad budget, the iPhone and Android app has gone viral and the aid provided has fed tens of thousands of schoolchildren and pregnant women.
ShareTheMeal founder Sebastian Stricker was already working for the WFP when he asked himself a simple question: In a world where there are more smartphones than hungry people, why not fight hunger with a click on an app?
Whenever a smartphone user is having his breakfast, lunch or dinner, he has the opportunity to share 50 cents with someone in need – hence the name “ShareTheMeal.” The donation covers the whole cost: from payment processing up to the logistics of food distribution. Since the app was launched in June 2015, initially in Germany and internationally five months later, the user numbers have, well, mushroomed.
“Some 5.4 million meals were distributed by about 500,000 donors up to the end of April,” says Stricker. “That means we are feeding between 10,000 and 15,000 children each day.”
The app has already received awards – including an interactive innovation award at the South by SouthWest festival, two prizes from Google and a renowned Webby Award.
Stricker is currently in Lebanon, managing the distribution of food via ShareTheMeal. “Lebanon has taken in over 1 million refugees, within a total population of 4.4 million,” he says. “Some have to live on rooftops, where tools are normally stored.”
The schools are staying open in the afternoons, so Syrian refugee children can go to school as well. “Poverty is immense – and yet there is still an unbelievable spirit and optimism. They treat the refugees well, with dignity,” he says.
ShareTheMeal first began its fight against world hunger by providing food for schoolchildren in Lesotho. The distribution of school meals has a twofold effect: in the short term, hunger is stemmed; and in the longer term, the economic development of the country is furthered. Meals mean children can attend school more often, instead of being sent out to work.
In the Syrian city of Homs, young mothers were the beneficiaries of the donations – another very efficient form of aid, according to experts. “If you don’t get enough food as an infant or pregnant woman, or if you get the wrong nutrients, the child won’t develop properly – and mental development is impaired as well,” says Stricker.
The ramifications for an individual’s entire lifetime are “impossible to make up. These are the so-called First 1,000 Days – from pregnancy to the end of the second year. If you don’t give support then, it can’t be made up later.”
The fight against global hunger may seem like battling an invisible enemy, but progress is being made, step by step, country by country. In Lesotho, after about a third of the malnourished children were fed for a year via ShareTheMeal, private initiatives stepped in and continued the aid work.
The money collected via the app was then allocated to care for refugee children in Jordan, and then pregnant women and mothers with small children in Homs.
Now ShareTheMeal aims to provide for all Syrian refugee children in Beirut. The underlying principle is to prove that the aid put in place thanks to app donations is working, so that other initiatives can then take over.
The 50 cents per meal that the app advertises is a global average for provisions through the UN WFP. “In some countries and situations, it is a lot more expensive; in others, clearly cheaper,” says Stricker.
Some foreign aid critics argue that the countries concerned might become dependent on this aid in the long run, but Stricker disagrees. “A certain minimum level of health, nutrition and education must be in place,” he says. “If you constantly remain below this minimum, you will remain ill, have few opportunities and pass this onto your children as well.”
For the future, Stricker dreams of using smartphones as a direct link between helpers and those in need of help.
“If you ask me what the top two future topics in this area are, I would answer: virtual reality and peer-to-peer help,” he says. The term “peer-to-peer” is used in the IT field to describe a direct connection between two computers in a network.
In the future, smartphone users might even be able to see who they have shared their meal with. Stricker is currently carrying out initial experiments with virtual reality in Lebanon. “This is really touching,” he says. “The children are holding up their food to the camera with big smiles.”
He describes how milk, apples and muffins were handed out to the children. “They liked the apples best of all,” says Stricker, smiling. “In Germany, children must be forced to eat fruit – and here they love apples more than anything.”
This article first appeared in German daily Die Welt.