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Greg Bounds
By
June 02, 2018

How a Great App Platform Helps Support Our Data-Driven Non-Profit

 

Brighter Bites

Fruits and vegetables are a beautiful thing. They’re nutritious and delicious. But nobody ever said they had to be perfect.

However, to make it onto grocers’ shelves, produce needs to meet conformity standards.

You’d be amazed at the amount of produce that goes to waste simply because it’s not pretty. A gigantic carrot or misshapen onion may be fresh and ready to enjoy, but everything needs to fit just right on a grocery store shelf. And if produce looks a little out of the ordinary it’s headed to the trash heap of history.

Grocery stores reject ugly produce. Actually, this food might not even make it that far in the value chain. Knowing grocery stores won’t want it, distributors might not even try to sell it. Sometimes farmers don’t even harvest it in the field. But when they do, distributors and farmers may donate it to food banks.

That’s where we come in.

What We Do

Brighter Bites brings the donated food to families who otherwise wouldn’t have access to fruits and vegetables. We bag it and add tip sheets on how to prepare it. Then we deliver it to families at schools in low-income areas in which affordable produce is hard to find.

When families pick up their two bags of fresh produce, we stage food demonstrations and offer snack samples. We also provide recipe suggestions.

These gatherings occur at 70 school locations, 16 weeks out of the school year, and during eight-week summer programs. The schools are in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, our headquarter city. Our employees and volunteers also stage demos and distributions at our new schools in Washington, D.C.; New York; and Immokalee in southwest Florida.

Our 501c3 non-profit has 30 full-time and 20 part-time employees. We have hundreds of volunteers weekly – mostly parents from the schools, but also community members. And about 15,000 families are enrolled to receive Brighter Bites’ produce and services.

A lot of people and resources need to come together to make the program work. But we’re happy to make it all happen, because providing fresh produce and related education to these families is the Brighter Bites mission.

So we continue to work to bring our families these important sources of nutrition. And, as part of that effort, we strive to make our organization more efficient and data-driven.

That’s where AppSheet comes in.

The company now powers about 16 Brighter Bites applications. These applications mean our employees and volunteers can spend more time working with families and less effort on data entry. Data collected with AppSheet-powered apps also is more accurate. Plus, the AppSheet platform provides Brighter Bites and its donors with quick access to the most current information. And they help us in several other areas.

I’ll tell you more about all our AppSheet-powered apps in a moment. But let me start by telling you what brought us to AppSheet in the first place.

Brighter Bites keeps track of who attends and gets produce, recipe cards, and tip sheets (like how to slice an avocado) at our distribution events. We check in several thousand families on our roster weekly. The distributed produce changes based on what’s available. So we use a roster to track the contents of a standard bag on a given day.

We also track the employees and volunteers working each event. Now that we’ve embraced AppSheet, we even track the weather on one of our apps. That helps us understand how storms and other weather events impact attendance at our events.

Brighter Bites2

Our Pain Point

Prior to adopting AppSheet, Brighter Bites used Excel to track family attendance and bag pickups at our distribution events.

Sometimes the spreadsheets were printed out, so workers had to re-enter the data later. That process was error-prone and inconvenient. Some of our schools are an hour or more from our offices, so data re-entry meant data wasn’t immediately available.

Other times our workers used computers running Excel. So they spent a lot of time scrolling to the right column and row to input data. And they had less time to interact with our families.

But data input errors and on-site inefficiencies were just part of the problem with Excel. Another major issue was that our data was so disorganized. It was everywhere.

So creating reports was an extremely painful exercise. As a result, we typically compiled our data just once or twice a year. That meant if our leaders or donors had questions, we’d have to scramble to create a special report, or they’d just wait for the annual report.

Brighter Bites is a data-driven organization, so this situation couldn’t continue. We like to know and show that we’re making a positive impact. And when our funding sources – whether it's a private donor or the Department of Agriculture – request information, we need to deliver.

A Better Way

So, having recently joined Brighter Bites, I decided it was time to centralize our data and improve out input process. We started out using Google Sheets. But then I found AppSheet and realized it was the perfect match for our attendance rosters. AppSheet greatly improves data entry and editing, and access to data. And AppSheet apps can run on a laptop, a PC, or a smartphone.

AppSheet allows for quick and easy field-based data input. If no connection is available at a school, it syncs the data when connectivity becomes available. And it offers workflow features like notifications, which are really great.

The Power of Notification

A big part of my role at Brighter Bites is program fidelity. That means making sure we’re implementing our program correctly and in the same way everywhere. So I like to provide tools to our leadership team that offer updates on our programs in each city. Notifications enable that.

We also do a survey at every school distribution. After someone at the event submits the survey, the AppSheet notification feature delivers it to the person who filled it out and to his or her supervisor. It comes to them instantly via email, so they don’t have to search for it. Notifications also allow us to send alerts when we add a new produce items or tipsheets.

The roster, our initial AppSheet-enabled solution, and the daily site survey are our two primary AppSheet apps. All our workers use these data-specific apps, as we call them.

We also now run various internal apps and research apps on the AppSheet platform.

That includes internal apps that allow our employees to request data from our marketing team or help from out IT team. For example, if someone at Brighter Bites is preparing a speech or getting ready to be interviewed by local media, they might use the app to request talking points from our marketing folks. And if a Brighter Bites employee is having computer problems, he or she can use the app to find someone in IT for assistance. This app makes it much faster and easier for people to access the resources they need when and where they need them.

Our research apps, meanwhile, help us better understand the effectiveness of our program. Here’s one example of a research effort AppSheet is helping enable.

Fifth graders at select schools have enrolled in a study through which we track what they select, eat, and trash for lunch during the school day. We post four research staff in the lunchroom to record this information – one to enter the data and the others help with observation and ensure entered data is correct. The aim is to help us understand whether and to what extent our program is prompting the children of our families to eat more produce.

Between 40 and 50 people use our internal applications, 30 to 40 use our data-specific apps, and about 10 use the research apps. They are used every day, constantly. I mentioned we’re in 70 schools, well we’re probably active in 40 or 50 of them at a time.

I built nearly all of these applications. For some of them, like the IT help system, I used an AppSheet sample app to get started. Others I created from scratch.

In fact, I built so many apps that some people were challenged to keep track of them. It’s funny, I feel like every time I have a problem, AppSheet a week before I contact them about it introduces a solution. In this case the solution was App Launcher.

App Launcher is a single app through which people can access other apps, group the apps and sort them by access. People love it. And it helps me too. If I have an update, I just do the update in App Launcher.

What’s Next

As you can see, we’ve already created a strong stable of apps using AppSheet. But we just keep coming up with great new ways to use the platform to support our efforts.

For example, I’m creating an app so we can send customized messages to our families. We plan to use this to inform our families what to expect at select events.

News of a specific demo, or that we’ve added a certain fruit or vegetable to our bags, may prompt a family to make the trip out to an event. The app, which will also leverage Google and Twilio technology, will also support one-on-one conversations. That way if a family is running late and needs us to hold their bags, we can do that.

We’re also working to introduce a new roster app notification to deliver alerts to our families when they check in at our events. The alerts might be something like “You attended two bag pickups this season. That’s more than 100 servings of produce you’ve received!”

I’ve been using the AppSheet platform for a while now. And, as you can probably tell, I’m still pretty excited about it.

Here’s why I love AppSheet.

They don’t stop releasing new features. With other tools, you buy into it, and there’s silence. But AppSheet continues to innovate.

The AppSheet platform has so many uses. The way we work now is that if a need arises, we say “Can we do that within AppSheet?” The answer is almost always yes.

Greg Bounds is director of analytics at Brighter Bites (www.brighterbites.org).

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