Public Pantry: A Case Study on Food Waste

Figuring out a way to feed millions of people through the use of communal fridges.

Defining the problem

Recently, Last Week Tonight (responsible for coining several inside joke-like hashtags including #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain) had a segment on the global food waste problem. I learned that approximately one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted every year. In the US alone, 30–40% of the food supply is wasted and households throw away 25% of the food they buy. Meanwhile 40–50 million people in the US don’t know where their dinner will be coming from tonight. Based on these facts, there seems to be a clear solution to a daunting problem — feed the food insecure using food that would have otherwise been wasted.

In fact, 2 billion people can be fed with just the amount the US throws away each year.

Research, synthesize, hypothesize

In researching this topic, I set out to answer five questions:

  • What are the drivers of food waste?
  • What solutions have already been proposed and what are their results
  • How much do individual consumers know about food waste, it’s causes, effects, and potential solutions?
  • What is the potential of a services marketplace model to address this important issue?

To conduct the research I interviewed a few subject matter experts, created an online survey, and surveyed people on the street. Here is a summary of my research methods and findings.

I quickly discovered that individual consumers are probably the least educated on the causes and effects of food waste, yet we wield significant influence on food waste throughout the value chain and effectively cause the most waste.

Consumers influence or directly waste 60% of the food produced.

A lot of our preferences — such as picking and choosing the best looking produce (culling) and buying dairy only if “sell by” date is well after their purchase date — has let to a lot of inefficient standards in the food retail business.

Overstocking retail displays and throwing away food far before expiration are just a few examples of how the individual consumer has contributed to a culture of food waste.

Consumers have also contributed to wasteful practices in restaurants. For example, restaurants have begun to offer larger portions due to customer demand. However, diners in the US leave 17% of their meals uneaten, only half of which are taken home as leftovers. With this in mind, Public Pantry was originally meant to be a way for this “plate waste” to be distributed to the homeless. Instead of leaving leftovers on their plates or baking in the sun on top of a trash can, they would be left in solar-powered fridges next to trash cans.

However, I wanted to make sure I was addressing the issue on a deeper level. A system like this wouldn’t create the sense of community and empathy required to change cultural norms around food and reduce food waste in an impactful way. In fact, it may cause even more segregation with those who can afford to go to restaurants vs. those who can’t and have to live off the leftovers of others.

The Turning Point

Towards the end of my research I came across an interview with a mother who had fed her family via food pantries for several years. Her account was eye opening. She described the shame and embarrassment of standing in line at multiple public pantries. She saw opportunities to supplement with food from neighbor’s gardens. Most importantly, her interview made me realize that anyone can be on the verge of food insecurity regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Her interview coupled with the fact that most people aren’t aware of how wasteful their habits are, made it increasingly clear to me that the focus should be on a community-based solution in order to create awareness of the food waste problem and empathy for the food insecure.

Focusing the design with guiding principles

On the most basic level, Public Pantry is public fridge where individuals would donate and take food. But I wanted to go a step further. Public Pantry should complement existing charity food services with healthy options instead of displacing them. It should also be a tool to educate people about food waste. To help me focus this idea, I created a UX strategy that included the following guiding Experience Principles:

  • Remove the shame and embarrassment that accompanies accepting free food.
  • Foster a sense of community and accountability. The idea that we are responsible for everyone’s health and wellbeing.
  • Ensure safety and security of the food and of the individuals.
  • Be educational. Create something that spreads awareness of the existing food waste and food insecurity issues.
  • Be all-inclusive. Create a system where people with any socioeconomic status are comfortable being on either side of the service.

Understanding the users and their goals

Based on the research, my hypothesis is that the following members of the community would be the early adopters of Public Pantry:

Julie, the home gardener that ends up with a surplus of fruits and veggies every year.

Stevie, the local cafe employee that has the responsibility to throw out the excess readymade food every night.

Melissa, the mother of two who makes just enough to not qualify for SNAP benefits but only has $100/month to budget towards food.

Users like Julie and Stevie are crucial to provide a steady and fresh supply of food. While users like Melissa may be more likely to adopt this system since they are actively trying to find alternative sources of fresh food for their family.

Underneath each personal, I created a flow for how each of these provisional personas would mainly interact with Public Pantries. Using these as my main guides, I created a product roadmap that prioritizes features for a testable minimal viable product in addition to possible future features.

Notable Features Of Public Pantry

While thinking of these features, it was important that I referred back to the guiding principles to determine how crucial it was to the success of Public Pantry.

  • To mitigate shame and embarrassment, I made sure that claiming and picking up food would be simple and quick using a donation feed view and a barcode scanner to open to quickly open the Pantry door.
  • In order to foster a sense of community and accountability, each donation that is picked up automatically sends a notification to the Donor that thanks them for their donation. They are also notified of who picked up their donation. In later versions, Pickers are able to rate and review the donations.
  • In addition to the locked Pantry system, and reputation system, anyone who wants to participate in Public Pantry needs to connect via social media, provide their real name, and provide their location to ensure the safety and security of the food and of the individuals.


With a solid execution strategy now in place, I began to sketch up ideas. I put together a rough prototype with my wireframes and test them with a few potential donors that I knew. I found that not only were people able to navigate around the app, they were also excited about the Public Pantry idea. They quickly understood the concept and was pleased with some of the ways I addressed safety and security.

Armed with their feedback, a branding style tile (see below), and a moodboard I put together, I proceeded to create hi fidelity mockups.

Style tile for a healthy, fresh, approachable brand
The progression from sketches to high fidelity mockups

Lessons and Failures (and failure lessons)

Since I’m still partway through this project, here’s a short list of learnings leaned so far.

  • It’s much easier to engage people for impromptu interviews than I thought. Some people really like answering questions and those who don’t will let you know by being standoffish. And if you’re being courteous, that’s pretty much the worst that could happen.
  • Provisional personas are only that, provisional. It’s possible that I may end up being wrong about the target audience and the use cases. However, I won’t know that until I’ve tested it with real people in real situations.
  • Being relatively new to the entire design thinking process, sometimes the imposter syndrome gets the better of me. But instead of letting my hypothesis fall apart, I go read a Julie Zhou essay and then push forward.

Current Project Status and Next Steps

I’m currently brainstorming ways I can test the entire Public Pantry system. So far, I’ve only been able to validate the app with people who already like the idea. I would be committing a deadly sin of design if I didn’t at least prototype and test the whole experience with my target audience. So my proposed next step is to prototype the whole service from front to back and conduct some contextual inquiries :

  1. Construct a Pantry prototype with a cooler, a hasp, and a combination lock.
  2. Fill the “Pantry” with a few food items and bring it to a busy street. (Additional locations would include: a community garden, a cafe at closing, and at a line at a food pantry)
  3. Describe the idea to people and ask if they’d like to donate or pick up food.
  4. Have them go through the experience starting from the app to unlocking the pantry and getting the food.

By modeling my prototype to be as close as possible to the real thing, I have the opportunity to experience the real successes and failures of this system. I’ll be interested in learning the following things:

  • What kind of friction is involved in the process? How much of it is from the app design or from the service?
  • Does this kind of system match up with the mental model people have for donating food?
  • Aside from safety and security, what other concerns do people have?
  • How likely it is for people to use this?
  • What other use cases could Public Pantry have?
  • What kind of maintenance is involved?
  • What would typical supply and demand look like?

I’ve been telling everyone I meet about the project, especially if they confess to me about being food insecure. What started as a passion project turned into something that people (including me) are actually excited about. But, I’ll be the first to admit that if Public Pantry is to be “a thing”, I will need help. So if you have any feedback for me, my process, want to help or know anyone who would be interested in help, feel free to drop me a line. A project that supports the community must have the community’s support.