The Future of Food-lanta

Team: Rubez Chong, Sarah Von Ahn, Ayush Chakravarty

The data say that 21% of Atlantans live in low-income neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food. We want to tell this story because these challenges are not receiving enough attention in major Southern urban areas, where the issue is particularly acute. For this project, we used the USDA Food Research Atlas, and restricted to our census tracts of interest (everything within Fulton County).

We take on the role of a small group of food security advocates within the Atlanta Mayor’s office — we would have recently worked on initiatives to expand food access to underserved areas. For this particular activity, though, our goal is to get more people within the Mayor’s staff (public health experts, staff working on low-income issues, chamber of commerce liaisons) to pay attention to this particular challenge and ultimately, to move towards creating a Mayor’s Office of Food Access similar to those that already exist in a few major cities across America. As such, the context of this activity is a workshop at an annual conference amongst executives within Atlanta’s Mayor’s Office.

The activity goes as follows: in our class of 15, we break people out into groups proportional to the county breakouts by type of food access (along the dimensions of access and income). To access each of their treats, Groups A, B, C, and D all have to accomplish different tasks (For example, group A, the high-income/high-access group just gets their treat at the door, but group D, the low-income, low-access group must do 15 jumping jacks and then walk up to the fourth floor for their treat).

We hope this game is effective on a few lines: for one, it is meant to generate empathy with the daily challenges of the individual, but also, when everyone comes back, characterize the sheer size of the problem: 3 of 15 people coming back panting when another 6 barely had to leave the room helps plot the data across an axis of humans. Finally, we hope that the embodiment will both spark discussion and encourage action (in this case by working to launch a food office).

Fuel for School

Group members: Lilian Eix, Amy Vogel, Shikun Zhu

The data say that each and every food is different according to its nutritional makeup. We want to tell this story because each nutrient contributes to one’s well-being in a different way; though we often think of making food choices based on budgeting calories, a different (and perhaps healthier) attitude to instill in kids is to think of food as fuel to help them accelerate in their daily activities. To do so, we used data from the USDA Food Composition Database.

Our audience is middle schoolers, who are typically thinking about nutrition and body image seriously for the first time, as they are going through puberty. When learning about nutrition, kids are often taught about roughly how many calories they should eat per day, about balancing the different food groups, that certain foods are “unhealthy”/”bad,” and that other foods are “healthy”/”good.”

Our goals are to create a game that would teach kids about nutrition in a more positive light and to emphasize the importance of a healthy breakfast. In our game, while some foods are certainly more “fuel efficient” than others, more importantly, different types of “fuel” will help the character with different types of activities. The player (a middle school student) can select what their character will eat for breakfast, and then see how the character performs throughout a typical school day.

We didn’t want kids to get in the habit of obsessing over numbers, so we intentionally hid the nutrition facts from the game screen (though in a final version we would also supply the user with the option to learn more about the nutrition information if they wanted to). Instead, the nutrition facts are indirectly communicated through the user’s strength, energy, and focus levels. Through formulas based on nutritional science, we used the protein, carbohydrates, and sugar content from our selected foods to determine how much strength, energy, and focus each food would contribute to the character. After breakfast, the character bikes to school, attends class, goes to P.E., and then takes a test. In each of those four activities, their strength, energy, and focus levels determine how well they will do. At the end of the game, the user has the opportunity to play again, which is crucial, because repetition is how they will learn the effect of different food choices.

Link to game:

The Grocery Game!

By: Julie Ganeshan, Berlynn Bai, Nora Wu

The data says that the majority of college-age students eat less than one serving of fruit and one serving of vegetables each day.  A study at New York University found that the prevalence of obesity almost doubled from the time that the a class year arrives on campus and when it graduates. While the “Freshman 15” is a hyperbole, college students gain an average of 12 pounds between entry and graduation. This represents only a small fraction of the problem, as sometimes people can make poor nutrition choices, without being overweight. Poor nutrition can appear as too few fruits and veggies, or as too many calories coming from carbs. The NYU study showed that college students average eating fast-food 1 to 3 times a week – much more frequently than any other age group. These foods are usually very unhealthy.

So how come college nutrition is so poor?

There are many factors – college students are usually completely on their own for the first time, and can make whatever choices they want. Some students are on all-you-can-eat dining plans, which make it very easy to get junk food, and lots of it. Some students live in cook-for-yourself communities, but the constant time stresses from work mean that many don’t have the time to worry about nutritious diets.

Let’s look at the current system for cook-for-yourself students. How would you maintain a nutritious diet?

  1. Look up daily intake requirements
  2. (Optional) Find recipes for healthy foods you like
  3. Create a grocery list from these recipes – some recipes won’t intersect well, so you may need to pick different ones
  4. Buy groceries from the store
  5. Cook & Eat
  6. Log what you ate into a fitness app

Each of these steps is disjoint – you, the student, must bridge the gap between the information and tasks. That can be a lot of work!

Enter, The Grocery Game.

The Grocery Game is a mobile app designed to help college students cook themselves healthy, nutritious meals while having a fun social experience. It combines the different parts of the “nutritious diet” problem in one place. We, the developers, represent a grocery chain such as Stop & Shop.

The Grocery Game focuses on grocery shopping. The game is played in social circles – a player can be part of as many social circles as they wish. You’ll compete with and help your social circles.

Each week, we’ll release a set of “awards”. Then, members of each social circle will compete to see who gets the award. Your performance is based on how healthy your grocery cart is.

When using the app, you first choose ingredients to compose your cart. Each ingredient has a health score and a calorie score, and your running totals are shown. Once you’ve finished making your cart, our app will make AI-powered recommendations on healthy substitutes for items in your cart. Once you’ve finalized your cart, the app places an order via a grocery delivery service such as Peapod for all items in your cart. We save your cart to your history, to track your weekly caloric and nutrient intake. At the end of the week, the app awards the best cart in each social circle depending on the week’s challenges with a small coupon for their next purchase.

When you choose ingredients, you have a choice between ingredient mode, and recipe mode. In either mode, we keep a running tally of your health and calorie scores that you see while you shop. In ingredient mode, you will browse different ingredients that you can add to your cart. You can browse by category (ex: “Recommended”, “Produce”, “Frozen”), and in the list view swipe left on ingredients you don’t like and swipe right on ingredients you do (these are added to your cart). Tapping on any ingredient brings you to a summary page which summarizes the key nutrition facts of the ingredient and displays its health and calorie scores. You can go to a further details screen that shows all the nutrition facts. Recipe mode is almost identical, except the categories are different cuisines, and adding a recipe adds each of its component ingredients. The recommended section is populated with ingredients or recipes that we think will fit well into your lifestyle, given your past carts.

Some examples of awards we might give:

“Balanced on a Budget”: Cheapest cart with a high enough health score (say, above 90).

“Experimental Foodie”: Cart that has the most new, healthy ingredients that you have not bought in the past.

“Health-Nut”: Highest health score.

Once you’ve made a cart, you can share it with friends, view recipes that can be made from the items in that cart (either those you selected, or generated recipes if you shopped in ingredient mode), and of course view your nutrition intake.

By “gamifying” the grocery-shopping process, and incorporating health recommendations, tracking, recipes, and history into The Grocery Game, we hope to make it easy and enjoyable for college students to choose nutritious diets. By integrating with Peapod, we bridge the gap between what you plan and record, and what you actually do. By adding achievements and social circles, we hope to make grocery shopping fun, and to have friends help each other stay nutritious.

The Grocery Game was our second big idea. The first idea that we pursued was an outdoor activity game that fostered nutrition. However, we found it difficult to incorporate nutrition facts into gameplay, and thus came up with The Grocery Game. This idea was also inspired by first-hand experience in a cook-for-yourself dorm, where students have expressed sentiments like “I love cooking, but hate grocery shopping and planning” , and “taking care of food is really hard”.





Fuel Frenzy

Fuel Frenzy

Tanaya, Melinda, Theresa, Victoria

The data say that nutritious eating is complicated–not all foods are equally nutritious even if they’re just as green–and many events may influence the choices a person makes when planning their meals for the week. Additionally, the data say that one tenth of MIT students face food insecurity on campus. We wanted to tell this story because most young adults have not needed to independently choose their diets until they reach college, so this game is an exercise in the challenges and rewards of choosing a balanced diet as an individual, and as a second level, the game promotes discussion within the group about community action on campus related to food insecurity.  

Our audience is freshman orientation groups– mostly 17-to-19-year-old MIT “prefrosh” who are arriving to campus and learning about how to live independently. Our goals are to teach the prefrosh how to balance their diets by playing a game that assigns point values to more ‘nutritious’ foods (for example, a bran muffin is worth more points than a serving of pasta) and gives bonuses for a diversely nutritious ‘plate’ (playing a hand with a protein, a vegetable, and a starch gives a point bonus). Additionally, we aim to highlight campus resources such as the ‘SwipeShare’ program that allows students to transfer extra meal swipes to those who need them. A final goal is to show that free food alone is not a consistent or sufficient source of food.

We combined multiple data sources to create the content for our game. By reviewing the foods available in dining halls and those common for ‘cook for yourself’ communities, and by reviewing the Sloan Slack for free food offerings, we gathered the data to inform the list of foods available in the two game decks: personal and free food. We categorized the approximately 40 foods into four categories: Protein, fruits/veggies, starches, and junk food. We then used the USDA nutrition database to assign point values to each food. Proteins were ranked by their protein per 100 grams, starches by their fiber per 100 grams, and fruits/veggies by their total vitamins and minerals per 100 grams. Junk foods were assigned a flat 1-point value.

We determined a point threshold, 10 points, that players are required to meet every turn as a ‘reasonable minimum for survival.’ In future iterations of this game, there may be a consequence for failing to meet this value for a certain number of turns in a row. We also assign bonuses for diverse plates. For example, a plate with 2 categories (ex. protein and veggie) will give a +2 bonus, but a plate with all 3 nutrition categories will give  a +5 bonus. Meals composed of junk food never gives a bonus. This rewards healthy and nutritionally balanced eating with points.

We used additional datasets including the MIT event calendar, the CDC Foodborne Outbreak dataset for Massachusetts, and news stories to inform the ‘Event” cards in the game, which introduce an element of randomness.  t For example, an event like Campus Preview Weekend increases the available free food. However, an event like a Hell Week increases the required nutrition threshold for the turn, and ‘feeling in a slump’ increases the value of fruits and vegetables. These latter two events highlight the importance of healthy eating not “because we told you so,” and instead link healthy eating to academic performance and mental health.

Prefrosh will be engaged in this game because it begins as a strategic, competitive game. However, at the end of the first half, the orientation leader can lead a discussion about the difficulties of the game, and the advantages that some people may have randomly started with, as some players will have been dealt a stronger hand (this is meant to mimic different levels of food access present on MIT’s campus). In the second half, the game becomes collaborative, and prefrosh are encouraged to talk to each other and share or trade cards so that everyone can meet the nutrition threshold every turn. This accomplishment may give a ‘group bonus’ in the second half, but the details of collaborative gameplay will be worked out in future iterations.

Data Games – SNAPOPOLY

Team member names: Sarah, Kate, Wataru, and Michael

Audience of the story: playing the game (Snapopoly) with middle school and high school kids as a kick off to a volunteer fair at their school. This can help people to learn about how to help fight hunger in their area (city, state, etc.)

Our goal: the main objective is to demonstrate the importance and interdependence of SNAP, food banks and charities in fighting food insecurity, and to encourage people to take a more active role in volunteering for this cause.  

Who we are in the story: we are the people that organized the volunteer fair at the school and we work with local food donation organizations to combat food security problems.

Context of the story: we are presenting a monopoly board at a school volunteer fair. The board and the game mechanics are driven by food stamp (SNAP) data, USDA budget spending data, and food bank donations data. By going to the fair and by playing the game, people can learn about how to volunteer in their community from different organizations.

The Sketch:

This project is focused on participatory data games. Our group was interested in food security data and how SNAP (food stamps) affects people’s lives here in Cambridge, MA. We also used data from different grocery stores and vendors to help create the game. Please see the “Data” section at the end of this blog post for more detail regarding the data used for this project.

We used the mechanics and ideas of the very popular board game, Monopoly, but changed the underlying meaning behind the spaces and rules of traditional Monopoly. We considered many potential variations of the rules, but ultimately chose a set of rules that we believed helped represent that data well. Our full list of rules and instructions are detailed in the provided instruction manual, but some of the most important pieces of the game are listed below:

  • Each of the colored spaces represents a location in which a player would purchase food or some sort of sustenance. The least expensive options at the beginning and most expensive options at the end of the round.  The price of food was determined by a USDA study on average grocery budgets from “Thrifty” to “Luxury”. In order to purchase groceries, you spend your SNAP food stamp allotment at each store and get 1 meal chip. Each meal chip is worth 1 week’s worth of food.


  • Players can land on chance or community chest cards that are either detrimental or beneficial in the player’s fight against hunger.  The community chest cards all represent different organizations present at the volunteer fair (e.g. food bank, meals on wheels, etc.), and the frequency of the community chest cards is proportional to the pounds of food donated in boston.  Each community chest card has a more detailed description of the charity so that you can learn more about the group.


  • Each trip around the board represents a month.  After you have made one trip around the month, you need to trade in 4 meal chips (equivalent to 1 month’s worth of food) in order to pass go, collect another month’s worth of food stamps, and keep playing.


  • The gameplay slightly changes between rounds:


    • Round 1: no charities are present (community chest cards are out of play), additionally the free parking “food rescue” spot is out of play, and all food is considered “wasted”.
    • Round 2: all community chest cards are in play, and meal chips start accruing in the food rescue spot at the rate of a quarter chip accrued for every meal chip purchased. Anyone who lands on food rescue gets all of the accrued meal chips for free.

The game has been designed, based on the pre-established probabilities of landing on each monopoly square so that on average, after Round 1, the player will be out of money and will have ~2.8 meal chips (fewer than the 4 meal chips required to keep playing).  Then, after the game restarts for Round 2, the odds are now that, on average, the player will still be out of money, but they will have accrued 4.4 meal chips and can therefore keep playing. We have purposefully designed these odds (using the chance cards to make the game play at the right level of difficulty) so that it is very difficult to win the game in the first round, and moderately difficult (but not impossible) to win the game during the 2nd round.  This will provide a “Call to Action” showing that these organizations serve a vital role in the community and are still very much in need of help.

In order to further assist the call to action, the instruction manual has added resources on how to navigate the volunteer fair (where the different booths are), contact information for how to get involved, etc.

The Board Game in Round 1, Round 2, Chance Cards, and Community Chest Cards are displayed in the figures at the end of the blog.

Data Used:

  • Food stamp monthly budget for single person
  • Pounds of food donated to the Greater Boston Food Bank by donation type (food bank, soup kitchen, after school programs, etc.)
  • Meals on Wheels food donated, scaled to city of Boston population
  • Average weekly meal spend according to USDA:
  • Food waste generated (40% of all food produced is wasted, we are generously assuming you can recover 25% of all food produced through food rescue, this is to make sure the food rescue dynamic comes into the game play, otherwise it is too small)
  • Food Deserts – (40% of Boston is a Food Desert, we have 26% of our board occupied by food deserts in round 1, due to game play mechanics, otherwise the proportion is too large to demonstrate other concepts).

Figure 1: Snapopoly game board (Round 1)


Figure 2: Snapopoly game board (Round 2)


Figure 3: Chance cards


Figure 4: Community Chest Cards