Between classes, exams, and learning to live on their own – college can be a difficult time of growth for students. On top of that stress, 29 percent of undergraduate students at UNM report they are food insecure and are not able to consistently access the nutrition they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, according to the 2021 Basic Needs Insecurity at UNM report. Meanwhile, university functions and events leave departments with a significant amount of leftover food, and a no productive way of using it.
UNM computer science and economics student Biraj Silwal was invited to join a group of Honors College students to create a mobile phone app to connect hungry Lobos to free food. He brought the technical skills to the team, but his motivation to work on the problem did not start with the invitation.
“Growing up, my parents would always tell me not to throw food away because other people around the world have nothing to eat,” Silwal explained. “I have always been passionate about helping people and community. When I was growing up, I just didn’t know how to do it. This is one way I’ve found.”
Originally from Nepal, Silwal was taught about health and nutrition at grade school. It’s where he learned that a lack of food can cause extreme health problems like Kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition that causes swelling in the belly.
“It’s seen a lot in Africa, when I learned about it, I was sad and felt sorry for those people and realize that throwing away food is bad,” he said.
Silwal came to the United States when he was 19 and chose to attend UNM because of the affordable tuition and availability of classes. He decided to study computer science, not because of the job opportunities or paycheck – but because of the potential impact he could make on the world.
“I’m passionate about technology and it was one of the best options I could see,” he explained. “I’m not just interested in computer science, but technology as a whole and how it’s saving the future and people.”
When he learned about the work UNM Honors College Associate Professor Sarita Cargas was doing through the UNM Basic Needs Insecurity Research Project, he knew it was an opportunity to combine his passions of technology and nutrition. Silwal teamed up with Cargas and three other Lobos in the UNM Honors College, Emily Castle (Biology), Amiah Dutra (Psychology), and Jane Keth (Chemical Engineering) to develop the LoboEats app.
He spent nearly 330 hours writing computer code for the app during the 2021-2022 UNM Winter Break. The work paid off and his app won first place and $5,000 in the 2022 UNM and CNM Mobile App Contest.
“If UNM departments have food availability, the app has a tab where they can put what kind of food it is, where it’s available, and what time,” explained Silwal.
The app enables offices on UNM’s Main Campus to post their food availability and students with the app will be notified in real time. Students can also open the app at any time to see if there happens to be food available nearby.
“This app that Biraj created addresses two problems: food insecurity and food waste,” said Cargas. “And he did it on completely voluntary time, not because he was being paid or receiving credit.”
She explained that the group researched how Old Dominion University in Virginia has set up its food recycling program and integrated portions into LoboEats. The app is still under development, but the team is hoping it will be completed by the end of the spring 2022 semester – just a year and a half after the project launched.
“But we’re still looking for how to make it sustainable once these students graduate and leave UNM,” Cargas said. “We’re also looking at how to expand it to include the branch campuses.”
As the first-place winner of the app contest, Silwal will receive a check for the winnings and plans to share with his teammates. The Office of the Chief Information Officer at UNM sponsored the ninth-annual Mobile App Contest, providing an opportunity for students from UNM and CNM to develop and apply coding skills to make useful mobile applications for the community.
Second Place — $2,500 winners — NM Trails
Informational website detailing hiking trails in New Mexico. Users can add trails to a hike list and rate trails based on difficulty and enjoyment. Also provides information about the trail including its location, length, and user submitted ratings/difficulty.
NM Trails Team: Cyrus McCormick, Chris Medlin
Third Place — $1000 winners — Interview Prep
This app is designed to help prospective employees in the IT field and interviewers prepare for the big day. Coming with preset questions and self-created interview quizzes, a user can comfortably practice for a variety of different interviews. A custom question feature makes it accessible for interviewers to use, quizzing applicants on whatever they seek to know.
Interview Prep Team: Cindy Nikolai, Zac Ramsey, Sergio Valdez
Honorable Mention — Howl
Howl is a social media app designed specifically for UNM students. Those who are interested in creating an account will have to sign up with their UNM email address. The purpose of Howl is to connect students across campus who might otherwise not ever meet.
Howl Team: Kellen Nee, Aaron Talamante, Pete Talamante, Riley Tarman