Senior Keith Atkinson Applies Computing Skills to Aid Food Pantry

Keith Atkinson

Senior Keith Atkinson Applies Computing Skills to Aid Husky FAN Food Pantry

December 13, 2019

By Karen S. Johnson, Communications Director, College of Computing

For his CS 4099 Directed Study class this fall, senior Computer Science undergraduate Keith Atkinson developed and deployed a Food Inventory System (FIS) for the Husky Food Access Network Food Pantry.

“The Inventory System will allow the pantry staff to quickly know what they have in their inventory,” says Atkinson, adding that it also anonymously collects information on what’s leaving the pantry to gain insight into specific usage.

“Ideally, it will also track items that are both removed due to expiration and items that are actually taken by students to give some idea on what specific donations to ask for in the future,” Atkinson says.

The inventory system uses a Google Sheet as a database, which gives food pantry volunteers easy access to the quantities and products they have on site without a separate website or system. And because it’s like any other Google Sheet, staff and volunteers are likely already familiar with it.

“The benefits of the Food Inventory System are huge,” says Whitney Boroski, Michigan Tech’s manager of student health and wellness. “The Husky Food Access Network now has real-time data we can use to identify need or organize programming. Keith has also arranged for us to track how much food we’re donating to other community entities.”

Boroski’s hope is that the FIS will give the Food Insecurities Committee a better snapshot of need so they’ll know how to most effectively serve the campus community.  She is also very confident that the FIS will save the pantry coordinator and team loads of time counting donations and getting an accurate inventory.

Formed in 2014, the Michigan Tech Food Insecurities Committee helps to combat hunger issues on campus. The committee developed what is now known as the Husky Food Access Network (Husky FAN). It provides multiple resources for the campus community, including the Food Pantry.

Atkinson was first introduced to the Husky FAN Food Pantry in Spring 2019 in his Food Systems & Sustainability class taught by assistant social sciences professor Angela Carter. “I knew I wanted to do directed study again this fall, so I had been thinking of possible projects I could do on campus,” Atkinson explains. “I’ve had experience with inventory systems through work and immediately thought I might be able to help digitize some of their process.”

So, after meeting with Whitney Boroski, Michigan Tech’s manager of student health and wellness, Atkinson approached Husky FAN with his idea, and then met with CS 4900 instructor Leo Ureel, a lecturer in the Computer Science department, who agreed that it would be a good project.

“It was a great opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary group of people with diverse skill sets,” Atkinson notes. “The members of the MTU Food Insecurities Committee as well as the pantry volunteers all have different backgrounds which made it a fun challenge to think about the different ways someone might interact with or use the inventory system.”

One benefit of the inventory system is knowing what is in the pantry for planning events, like the recent Soup Meal Pack Giveaway. “For example, a pantry volunteer could quickly identify the quantities of peanut butter, bread, and jelly then put together a PB&J sandwich event with a good estimate of available quantities,” Atkinson says. “Right now, the only way to know what the pantry has is to manually count it, which is time consuming,”

“This tool that Keith has created and set into operation for us is invaluable.  I couldn’t even begin to think of how the Husky Food Access Network would pay for this type of service/program, not to mention something tailored 100% to our needs!” Boroski says.

In designing the inventory system, Atkinson worked closely with the Food Insecurities Committee, especially Boroski and student and pantry coordinator Elisha Houle. “I presented it at two meetings and they were helpful in identifying what to put together in a guide, as well as sharing some general concerns.”

One concern the Committee voiced was Atkinson’s Spring 2020 graduation, and whether he would be available in the future to help maintain the system and address any problems that may arise. To address this, Atkinson created a users’ guide along with thorough documentation on recreating the project, including explanations of how and why the inventory system works.

The inventory system, which includes UPC scanners, is now complete and the pantry is soft-piloting it this semester with plans to implement it fully next semester.  Atkinson has a job lined up in the Houghton area after his expected graduation in April 2020, so he will be close by to maintain the system if there are issues.

“Keith is a wonderful, very dedicated individual that I’ve enjoyed working with over the last year” says Boroski. “He is very professional, super smart, and has an amazing attention to detail!  Keith listened to the Husky Food Access Networks needs and took comments and feedback very well. I’m elated that he will be staying in the area after graduation to work professionally.”

Atkinson enjoys applying his computing skills to improve communities and lives. In a separate, earlier CS 4900 Directed Study course, he wrote curriculum and a grant to fund Copper Country Coders, a weekly educational program provided by Michigan Tech students, with assistance from Computer Science faculty members Leo Ureel and Charles Wallace, that introduces middle and high school students to the world of computer science and programming.

Atkinson has also volunteered for BASIC (Building Adult Skills in Computing), a Michigan Tech student-driven weekly computer skills workshop held Saturday mornings at the Portage Lake District Library that provides free one-on-one computer skills tutoring to community members.

“I’m very proud of the Food Insecurities Committee at Michigan Tech for their dedication and hard work organizing and maintaining Husky FAN,” says Boroski. “With Keith’s contribution of the FIS and his support, which he’s offered multiple times after he graduates, I feel Michigan Tech is one of the leaders in addressing food insecurities on college campuses. Food Insecurities work is never finished, but with creative innovations like Keith’s FIS we can concentrate more on feeding those who are hungry!”

The Husky FAN food pantry is located on the first floor of Fisher Hall, down the hall from Fisher 135, in the space formerly known as the Aftermath Café. It is open daily Tuesday through Friday, and on Mondays by appointment. The pantry is available free of charge to anyone. No paperwork or approval is required. Services are confidential and anonymous.

Learn more about the Husky Food Access Network Food Pantry here.


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