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Food Circles

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Jonathan Kumar believes in the power of hunger

“If you asked a random person if they are doing enough to impact others, most would say ‘no,’ whether the excuse be time, money, or too many fundraisers,” Kumar said. “But, they will eat out twice a week. They are able to do something powerful with what they are already doing.”
Kumar is working to harness this power as the Managing Director of FoodCircles, an app that allows the user to purchase a voucher for a food item at local restaurants, including Hop Cat, Bar Divani, Stella’s Lounge, and more. The user pays a minimum of $1, and up to as much as they want for the item. They then select a partner nonprofit, to which 100 percent of their purchase is donated.
“As a kid, I remember times when my friends were playing or I was supposed to do schoolwork, but I didn’t want to because I was hungry. We were on food stamps, and I remember scrounging for groceries,” Kumar said. “It is such a disadvantage for kids who don’t get a chance to play when they want to and study when they want to.”
Fast forward 20 years and Kumar is attending the University of Michigan, pursuing a degree in Informatics.
In 2011, Kumar was sitting in an Ann Arbor cafe when the initial idea for FoodCircles sparked. He saw an American restaurant and an Indian restaurant right across the street from it and thought that if he walked into one or the other, he could likely get them to do something special for his business.
“Whenever I went out to eat with my friends, we would have fun, but I would have this sense that there was so much more I could do with the $12 I just spent on a turkey sandwich,” he said.
Kumar continued to play around with the idea at University of Michigan that spring, and then moved to Grand Rapids after graduating.
The App
The first and second ideations of FoodCircles were important lessons for Kumar and the FoodCircles team.
“We hadn’t incorporated the ‘buy one, feed one’ philosophy yet. It was more like eBay for restaurants,” Kumar said. “Restaurants could bid on groups of friends who wanted to go out, but didn’t know where. This live bidding system didn’t work at all. It came down to a simple question, stemmed from the power of hunger: ‘Can I do something more for others with my hunger and my desire to go out and eat?’”
The team then pivoted to a concept that was more impact driven. In May 2012, they launched the first public website and mobile app, but still didn’t find the response they were looking for.
“The app wasn’t resonating with people,” Kumar said. “There was a list of 20 specials on the app and every time a customer redeemed a special, we promised to feed a child in need somewhere in the background. I don’t think people felt like they were doing anything.”
As a result, Kumar decided they would redevelop the app and the messaging of FoodCircles, spending 11 months from January to November 2013 in an intentional phase of research and product development. On Nov. 5, 2013, the Food Circles team launched a new version of the app and website, which quickly showed a 300 percent increase in usage.
The Users

The team is excited to see this jump in growth, and users are excited to be purchasing vouchers. Joe Sonheim, Amber Swift and Ashley Scholma are a sample of the current users of FoodCircles. They see the power that FoodCircles has and appreciate the impact it allows them to have with an action they are taking in their everyday lives.
“I always feel a bad when I present a Groupon, wait staff usually seems a little resentful,” Sonheim said. “I don’t feel that with FoodCircles vouchers. When I present it, I sense a pride that [the waitstaff] is also committed to helping. It’s a very positive experience.”
The app even brings users to new restaurants.
“What an awesome thing these businesses are doing. The thought of me buying appetizers and the money going to feed hungry kids is phenomenal,” Scholma said. “I wish there were more businesses involved.”
“I have a strong desire to feed those who are underprivileged, especially children, and more specifically, those in my own backyard. I was excited to see that I could eat out, which my husband and I frequently do, and feed children with no additional effort,” Swift said. “One of the best parts is that if what I buy expires, the kids still get fed. There is no wasted money.”
The desire for more opportunities to use the app is resounding amongst current users, but the app needs more users to make this happen.
“I can really see this thing taking off, but we need more people. There is no reason why this shouldn’t go viral,” said Adam Salois, Lead Designer on the FoodCircles team, “We released this updated version with growth in mind.”
The Impact
Ashley Abbott serves as the Fund Development and Community Outreach Coordinator at Kids’ Food Basket, a local nonprofit fighting childhood hunger that users can choose to support on the app.
“When given the opportunity to address childhood hunger, organizations like FoodCircles choose not to look away, but instead, create innovative ideas to make it easy for the community to deal with the problem head on,” Abbott said.
One-in-four children in Michigan struggle with hunger, and Kids’ Food Basket is working hard to provide nutritious meals, serving them directly in a way that is dignifying and accessible to 6,000 kids each weekday.
“Together, FoodCircles and Kids’ Food Basket have developed a tangible opportunity for thousands of people from all walks of life, all ages, to feed hungry children,” Abbot said. “Anyone can make a positive difference and anyone can serve.”
Abbott gets to witness the impact this shift in dining dollars has on West Michigan children.
“‘Tony’ is a sophomore at Union High School. He told us that without Kids’ Food Basket, he doesn’t know where he would be. Likely in the systems, because without Kids’ Food Basket, he would have had to steal food for he and his little sister,” Abbott said. “But now, Tony is upward bound, preparing to go to college. That’s the impact. That’s what FoodCircles and the community can make happen.”
What’s Next
“I’m excited about its growth potential. It’s cool to talk to other people who use the app. They are the kind of people who are good at spreading things,” Sonheim said. “If you are going about trying to start something that grows legs and becomes a national movement, those are the people you need on the front lines.”
Kumar said the biggest challenges as the founder of an impact-driven startup in Grand Rapids has been storytelling, and keeping the app at top-of-mind for users.
“This recent update has been a lot more successful, but we have a lot of work still to do,” he said. “We are looking to raise additional capital and grow our staff. We want to feed 5,000 kids this year.”
Although the core of the app is centered on the “buy one, feed one” concept, Kumar knows that the potential reach is so much bigger.
“Our mission isn’t tied to hunger as much as it is empowering diners to do something powerful with their hunger,” Kumar said. “That’s why I started. I know I can do something impactful with my dining decision, but impact means different things to different people.”
“Their enthusiastic work has not only been innovative and fun, but inspiring,” Abbott said.
“It is an overwhelmingly good feeling,” Swift said.
The potential impact for FoodCircles is incredible, but it needs users to download the app, buy a voucher and use their hunger for something powerful. To download, visit joinfoodcircles.org.

Kelly LeCoy is the founder of Uptown Kitchen  and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids.  

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Related Resources

  • Kids' Food Basket
    Kids’ Food Basket, a non profit organization, is a force for "Attacking Childhood Hunger." Its mission is to ensure children in the community do not go to bed hungry.