As a professor and instructor, Dan Gillis believes in motivating and challenging his students.
He also likes to harness their creativity and knowledge to help the community.
At the University of Guelph, he’s focused their energies on innovation in food systems, and how those systems could work more efficiently to provide food security in local areas.
“In Guelph, 16 to 20 per cent of households face some level of food insecurity, which means they’re unable to or have difficulty feeding themselves,” explains Gillis. “Although food banks get a lot of help during the holidays, they need help at other times too.”
Gillis’ involvement with the Guelph Wellington Food Round Table in 2012 has led to the creation of FarmToFork, a website that connects food banks and pantries in Guelph and Waterloo Region with people able to donate.
Participating food banks can create a weekly grocery list of needed items.
When potential donors register on the site, they designate the food bank location most convenient to them, and on the day they do their grocery shopping, they receive an email with the items that food provider needs that week. This makes it easy for donors to add needed items to their grocery purchases and deliver them to the food bank.
“We brought the problem of how to connect potential donors with emergency food providers to the students and it’s been a huge learning experience for them,” says Gillis, adding that the site has generated global interest from people looking to adapt this for their needs.
The website and its database are currently being redesigned to allow for world-wide users, and a mobile app is also in development that will use location-based technology to identify when potential donors are near a grocery store and remind them of their food pantry’s needs. Both are expected to launch later on this year.
Gillis has other ideas for FarmToFork as well, which he’ll need as his class’ popularity has seen enrollment grow from 32 to over 70 last fall.
He’d like to develop better linkages throughout the food production chain, including partnering directly with farmers or with grocery stores to let shoppers scan and pay for needed items and the food bank could collect them directly from the store when they need them, for example.
Gillis’ students are also building a website for the Guelph Community Health Centre to help run its Garden Fresh Box Program, including managing volunteers, providing alerts for box pickups, automated tax receipts for donors and online fresh box purchasing. It’s expected to be live by September.
And Guelph’s Appleseed Collective, which picks residential fruit trees that would otherwise not be harvested, is also benefitting from work by Gillis’ students. They’ve developed an online tool that should launch this fall for the group to help it manage both its volunteers and the people registering their trees to the program.
Here too, Gillis is thinking ahead to possible expansion that could include gardeners with surplus vegetables or even a mobile app for kids that could turn identifying fruit trees into a game.
“I try to do community projects every year with the students where they can work with a real client. It is awesome to see how the students have responded and are being civic-minded,” he says. “With the connections that University of Guelph has with food, it’s easy to keep this going.”