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Stats Students Improve Meal Service Tracking for Local Nonprofit

Two Cal Poly Statistics students volunteering at the People's Kitchen Statistics majors Edy Reynolds (on left) and Lauren Taylor volunteered for People's Kitchen in San Luis Obispo and helped assess the nonprofit's data analytics and homeless meal serving plans


June 2024
by nick wilson

Each year, the nonprofit People’s Kitchen serves several thousand meals to help meet the growing needs of the unhoused in San Luis Obispo County — and a Cal Poly statistics team is lending a helping hand and making meaningful, real-world impact.

Students working with statistics Professor Emily Robinson have created tools for program coordinators to track daily meal counts served at 40 Prado Homeless Services Center.

People's Kitchen infographicPeople’s Kitchen draws upon the goodwill of more than 40 local organizations whose volunteers serve hot noon meals 364 days per year. The organization delivered 35,273 meals in 2023, its largest annual total to date, after serving 27,306 in 2022; 23,529 in 2021; and 26,924 in 2020.

With churches, schools and social clubs all sharing service duties, the organization required an effective system to better record and track the meal count numbers, while learning to spot patterns as levels of service fluctuate throughout the year based on attendance.

Starting in spring 2023, Robinson and her student team went to work creating a variety of user-friendly analytics tools. 

“My background is in data visualization and user experience information, and I was one of the department consultants at that time,” Robinson said. “When Statistics Department Chair Andrew Schaffner contacted me, he asked 'Is this interesting to you?' Immediately, I said ‘Yes, this sounds so cool.’”

Robinson met with Robyn Kontra Tanner, a member of both the People's Kitchen board and Cal Poly University Communications and Marketing’s staff, to learn about the nonprofit's needs.

Robinson then recruited a student research team — including statistics majors Lauren Taylor and Edy Reynolds, as well as English major Payton Swanson.

Professor Emily Robinson with students

The group started from scratch, pulling from existing People's Kitchen computer notations and even handwritten tallies of meal counts kept daily in recent years, and by the month in years previous.

The dashboards they've created now offer People's Kitchen the ability to spot trends in the meal counts and observe fluctuations with mechanisms to identify what causes shifts, such as weather metrics, major holidays, time of month and serving group.

"There are different group organizations serving every day," Reynolds said. "So, it's good for them to know how much food to prepare, so there's enough but not too much left over. What we're hoping to explore in the future is some actual predictive modeling."

But the first step was to digitize everything.

"They wanted everything housed in their Google Drive to access it privately, so we entered the records into a spreadsheet, and then formatted the variables to come up with a process about how they could input data themselves," Reynolds said.

The students created a Google Form that now links to the spreadsheet, which links to dashboards in the program Looker Studio. Automating the process for customizing reports has created an easy-to-use portal.

"Designing that data workflow was very interesting because there was a lot of code that makes the connection to the Google Form to the spreadsheet smooth and easy to use," Taylor said.

Swanson's role involved creating written procedural and instructional documents for People's Kitchen coordinators and volunteers, many of them unfamiliar with the data tools. Swanson's manuals now can be used by future generations of organization leaders as well.

Robinson said the data records also may help People's Kitchen apply for future grants and other types of funding to support the program.

The benefit of the research-based project for students has been learning to collaborate with clients on using data analytics and navigating systems they normally don't work with.

"We don't typically use anything hosted in Google for stats," Taylor said. "Typically, we'd do something like this in R Shiny, which helps create dashboards really easily. But it was important for the organization to have full control and a deep understanding of the data workflow. We could not provide this with R Shiny, which is why we opted to host in Google.”  

The team gained experience with Looker Studio, Google Sheets and Google Apps Script.

"We didn't know any of that before," Taylor said. "We learned so much."

And a poster they've created outlines their work for recent presentations at the 2024 Bailey College Student Research Conference and the Symposium on Statistics and Data Science Conference in Richmond, Virginia.

Statistics students with research poster

Also, the student researchers have visited the 40 Prado Services Center to serve meals alongside other local volunteers from the various volunteer organizations.

"The people really are what makes that organization so special," Taylor said. "It's just a great community."

Acknowledgment from the Statistics research team: "We thank People's Kitchen of San Luis Obispo for their collaboration and dedication to addressing food insecurity in our community."

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