Reducing Food Waste by Eliminating Food Insecurity

This was my first design thinking project. It began in Spring 2016 to do good in the NYU community and ended in Summer 2017. The project is also a part of the OpenIDEO Food Waste Alliance.

Problem: Acquiring the untouched and leftover food from NYU events to the students instead of being thrown into trash

Goal: Reducing food waste and food insecurity at NYU and increasing affordability for students

Impact: The current prototype had served, at an average of 83 students per week for 1 month. Through the sticker system, it also showed that Friday was the busiest day, and, Sundays and Tuesdays did not have a crowd. The sticker system showed a usage of 56 times in mid-May 2017. Hence, it proved that the system is sustainable. A net grant of $2,500 was awarded to keep the project operational. The Project was rebooted in Fall 2019 and is growing ever so strong.

Tools: Solidworks, Rapid prototyping, raspberry pi, sensors and instrumentation


Food waste in the US is a painfully expensive problem. About 30-50% of the food purchased from the grocery store is thrown away. This food could be put to better use. The idea here is not recycling waste food in the form of compost, but to manage it in such a way that those who need it, will have access to at least some of it.

Inspired by the Do-Tank Challenge on food waste, the NYU FREEdge began as Project Avocado. Its primary goal was to build a strong community of NYU students through sharing food. Be it untouched and leftover, canned, packed, or fresh, students could share food with one another.

An initial survey with 21 random students of NYU made the team realize that many students do not eat healthy food, but rely on things such as $1 pizza and other junk food because they are cheaper. Speaking with some of the NYU faculty and staff, the team learned about the leftover food from events and workshops. However, at that time, there was predicament: No sustainable way of re-distributing the leftover food.

In May 2016, a one day event-based prototype was created. Because it was near the end of the semester, students were asked to bring any good food that they would otherwise discard. Throughout the day long event, there were 25 participants, and 7 of them gave the food. And at the end of the day, it was decided that having a community sharing refrigerator would be the best way to go forward. However, the user had to remain anonymous as many did not prefer to give their names.

The NYU FREEdge is located at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn. It went under a hiatus in mid-May 2017. An important reason for the NYU FREEdge going on a regular hiatus is because during the academic year breaks, there will not me many events and students.

During Fall 2016, with a new team members, the project took a further step. The team discussed with organizations such as NICE and City Harvest to know about the impacts of sharing leftover food from various events, and how to reach out to the community at large. It turned out that what the project was doing was a noble thing, and the Good Samaritan Laws protected the project from unintended consequences. There was also a suggestion to reframe the problem statement to suit the affordability issues faced by NYU students, when it comes to food.

The team now had a refrigerator, advice on how to proceed, and leftover food from all the NYU events. The next move was to make a prototype that connected with the NYU students. The prototype did not have a name at the time. Apart from the ongoing research, the team also participated in the OpenIDEO sustainable food waste challenge, where there was an interesting piece of research on community refrigerators. It was called freedge, which started at UC Davis. As there was a similar concept in existence, the team became a part of the freedge community. However, to uphold the fact that all the food came from NYU events and personnel, the name was altered to NYU FREEdge.

To test the pilot NYU FREEdge, which was bright and colorful, it was kept outside the cafeteria, and next to the NYU MakerSpace, a place which is always used by students in large numbers. After a small kickoff event, this prototype was left as it was to test for sustainability: if students were willing to use it, and if anyone would be willing to give food.

The prototype was a success! Not only did students come to see if there was any food in the NYU FREEdge, but many people gave leftover food from events.

This prototype was tested over a period of 1 month between November and December 2016. However, it was on a hiatus during the winter break of NYU until January 23 2017. After the pilot test, a second Freedge was commissioned.


Based on the exciting turnout of the previous prototypes, the team had to find out a way to collect the data of the usage of the NYU FREEdge. It was important to do it in a way that students would continue to use the service, but remain anonymous.

A simple sticker-based system was used to keep a track of how long the food remained inside the refrigerator. Each day of the week had a different colored sticker associated with it. One team member would check for any old or spoiled food every day to ensure safety of the user.

The second prototype continued with a raspberry pi based touch screen system. This is what made the NYU FREEdge smart: the system had the capability of counting the number of users, and take photos of anything inside the refrigerator once the doors were shut and send it to Facebook. However, due to the absence of adequate light, most images were dark. Hence, the team decided to tackle this by asking the users to take photos and upload it on the NYU FREEdge facebook page, instead of the refrigerator doing it.

This recent prototype continued to have the stickers to help the team check for safety and for the users to know when the food was put inside the NYU FREEdge. Many times, the food was open; it was not given in closed containers, so the team also used zip-loc bags to put them in the refrigerator. The bags were again marked with the stickers. This new prototype ran between mid-April and mid- May of 2017.

When the Fall 2017 term begins, the prototype will be further being developed into a full fledged working product. The new plans include having another refrigerator at the Washington Square campus of NYU, and developing a better user interface through a webapp.

A net grant of $ 2,500 was awarded for this project.