Laurel native uses mobile app to feed kids

“My Phone Feeds Kids. Does Yours?” These words, printed in white letters on a black T-shirt, are the foundation of Laurel resident Luke Roberts’ new mobile app, which raises funds for food to serve students in need and their families through a Maryland Food Bank program.

Roberts described the My Phone Feeds Kids app as “a social justice initiative” designed to show communities how small actions can lead to positive impacts. The mobile app will officially launch Sept. 8 during an event at Sip at C Street cafe in Laurel.

A graduate of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the 27-year-old entrepreneur said he recruited his tech-savvy father, John Roberts, in 2015 to design the mobile app, which was completed within a year.

App users can download the app on iOS or Android devices, create an account and purchase a T-shirt for $25. As participants wear their T-shirts in public, Roberts said they raise awareness and encourage others to support the cause.

Participants can then pass their referral codes on to new app users and track the total number of people who’ve gotten involved, and the amount of donations raised, since they first bought their T-shirt. Roberts said 30 percent of each T-shirt sale, about $7.50, goes to the Maryland Food Bank’s Weekend Survival Kit program.

Amy Chase, director of corporate relations at the Maryland Food Bank, said the survival kit program provides food for Baltimore City students in need as well as two of their family members – about 12 meals – to eat over the weekends during the school year. The program serves six elementary and middle schools.

“A lot of homeless kids don’t have access to food over the weekend, so during the school year on Fridays, they get a kit that has ready-to-eat food,” Chase said. “You don’t have to cook anything, you don’t have to cut anything and it’s just ready to go.”

Some students in Baltimore City are living in emergency shelters, cars and motels or on the street, Chase said, limiting their access to quick-and-easy meals. The survival kit includes canned meat, macaroni and cheese, ravioli, peanut butter and jelly, bread, cereal, canned fruit and apple sauce, shelf-stable milk, apple juice, granola bars, pretzels and paper goods, such as cereal bowls.

Apps can help

Social media’s involvement in what has become known as “cause marketing” has grown substantially over the last decade, according to Sara Nason, a spokeswoman for app and independent charity evaluator Charity Navigator. Nason said she wasn’t familiar with Roberts’ My Phone Feeds Kids app, but that charities using social media range from those feeding the hungry or funding a construction project to groups who are restoring animal habitats or helping those affected by a natural disaster.

Charity Navigator rates charities and provides information to users. Nason said the company’s latest project created programming that allows clients to use their data in creative ways to share with different outlets in the community.

“The most forward [motion] for charitable technology is to bring information to individuals in that ‘tweetable’ format,’” Nason said. “Developing apps and new technology to provide that information, educate donors and create an accessible format is so important to intelligence giving and philanthropy.”

Natural disasters, such as the recent Hurricane Harvey in Texas, intensifies charitable donations, Nason said. Charity Navigator saw a 300 percent increase in users the weeks before and after the hurricane destroyed the city.

“[Charitable technology] is a completely different discussion that wasn’t really happening with Hurricane Sandy or even Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “These online formats are becoming crucial to providing information for people.”

Another charitable app is ShareTheMeal, which was created by the United Nations World Food Programme humanitarian organization to feed children in need throughout the world. According to the ShareTheMeal website, the World Food Programme provides food assistance to 80 million people in about 80 countries every year.

App users can donate as little as 50 cents, said operations manager Victoria Leonhardt, which is enough to feed one child for a day.

“ShareTheMeal makes it easy for anyone with a smartphone to give back with just a tap on the app and 50 cents or more,” Leonhardt said. “With ShareTheMeal, a new generation has been engaged in the fight against hunger.”

More than 870,000 people have downloaded ShareTheMeal since its launch in 2015, Leonhardt said, with nearly 16 million meals provided to children in Yemen, South Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Malawi and Cameroon.

‘Not about pushing’

When Roberts developed his idea for the My Phone Feeds Kids app in 2014, he was an independent contractor for a phone service company, while working toward a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Roberts said he created and designed the first My Phone Feeds Kids T-shirt as part of a marketing strategy to appeal to clients.

“[The company] had this marketing thing where when you paid your phone bill every month, they would donate one meal to this nonprofit that fed kids,” Roberts said. “They encouraged you to market to friends and family and I hated that, so I figured out a way to get random people to come talk to me about it.”

In collaboration with Tasty Shirt Co., a North Laurel business, Roberts said he designed the first My Phone Feeds Kids T-shirt to attract customers. He later left his job and took his idea with him to connect with people to “do some good.”

“It gives people a way to get involved in a social justice cause they care about by showing them how one small action that they can easily do can be tracked and turned into a big impact for a nonprofit,” Roberts said. “It’s not about pushing; it’s an invitation to say, ‘Here’s something cool that I’m doing. Do you want to know about it?’”

Daniel Kalicka, owner of Tasty Shirt Co., said in the store’s 40 years of business, he hasn’t seen anything quite like Roberts’ app. Although admitting he was unfamiliar with the social media world, Kalicka said he was interested to learn more about My Phone Feeds Kids and how his business could take part in its efforts.

“I have two children of my own and no one ever wants to hear about a child getting hurt, being sick or being hungry. The cause is great,” Kalicka said. “There are a lot of websites that make it easier for you to give. It just seems that the more technology that’s involved, you can streamline it and it’s more economical.”

Roberts said his goal is to raise $100,000 for the Weekend Survival Kit program over the next year through My Phone Feeds Kids. Since the app’s development was a family affair, the majority of all funds go directly to feeding children rather than paying investors.

Roberts said he imagines expanding the mobile app’s reach outside the state as well as raising awareness for different causes.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” Roberts said. “It’s a goal to get to that point. I want to set an exciting goal that I feel is going to be meaningful to a lot of kids.”

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