These Twin Sisters Are Feeding Their City, 1 Download At A Time

by Victoria Leandra
Courtesy of Shirley and Annie Zhu

For some people, natural catastrophes pass by without much impact on their lives. But for twin sisters Shirley Zhu and Annie Zhu, both 17, the pass of Hurricane Harvey through Houston, Texas in 2017 drastically changed the course of their high school careers. It was then that both Annie and Shirley saw firsthand what they describe as “the inequity that exists within Houston” — and in turn, that prompted them to create Fresh Hub, an app and nonprofit organization to combat food insecurity and waste.

Back then, two families close to the sisters were among the more than 32,000 Houstonians forced out of their homes due to extreme flooding. The Zhu family invited their friends to shelter in their home while they recovered. “Our parents always made us conscious of the people around us,” Annie says. “[We realized] we could do something for our community too.”

We didn't want to wait for the government to fix the problem.

Shaken by the hurricane’s devastation and the suffering of their friends, Shirley and Annie began researching how they could help the community nearby and found that those with major home damage due to Hurricane Harvey were more likely to be food insecure, with limited or uncertain access to adequate and healthy food, than those with little to no hurricane damage. Even prior to the hurricane, food insecurity was a major issue in Houston: More than 500,000 residents live in so-called “food deserts” where it’s difficult to access fresh food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Beforehand, we thought this was an issue that our government or nonprofits had covered. [We thought] ‘it's not really our issue.’ But after the hurricane it became a reality for us,” Annie says.

That’s why in 2018, the sisters created Fresh Hub to take excess unsold food from bakeries and local grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and redistribute it in food desert regions of Houston. In the United States, up to 40% of the food supply ends up in landfills, according to the USDA.

Through the Future Problem Solvers Club at Bellaire High School, which they also co-founded in 2018, the Zhu sisters, who are now in their senior year, rallied their peers to help their local community. They contacted the Houston Health Department and Second Servings, Houston's only food rescue organization, to partner with them prior to launching.

“We didn't want to wait for the government to fix the problem. We realized we had the power to do this too, so we took the initiative,” Shirley says.

Courtesy of Shirley and Annie Zhu

As of the summer of 2020, they’ve collected and distributed over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce, baked goods, and packaged meats, helping nearly 1,400 Houstonians. At first, they used Remind, a mass text-messaging app, to notify more than 450 beneficiaries in the community about when and where the next food distribution event was going to take place. But they wanted to provide a more holistic approach to their service. In late 2018, they decided to develop a mobile app where they could interact with the community directly.

Launched in the spring of 2019 and compatible with both iOS and Android, the free app keeps users up to date on the time and location of food distribution events. Hubs for nutrition and recipes also give users information on how to read food labels as well as ideas for what to cook with the ingredients offered. “A lot of these people in underserved communities can’t afford to go to a dietitian, or their school might not offer top-quality health education. So our app provides them that basic nutritional information,” Shirley notes. The recipe ideas are created in partnership with a fellow student whose Girl Scout Gold Award project was developing nutrition-focused recipes.

The sisters, along with Fresh Hub volunteers Miles Mackenzie and Caleb Hu, developed the app using Android Studios and Flutter with the Dart programming language. “A lot of [it] was self-learned,” says Annie. “There was a lot of research on our own, watching YouTube videos, looking at examples of apps on GitHub and really taking those extra measures to educate ourselves.”

It feels like Annie and I are now able to give back to that community.

Alice Fisher, their high school computer science teacher and mentor in the STEM field, says she’s inspired by the sisters’ motivation to go beyond the classroom, using technology to change lives. She sees the app as an extension of the meaningful impact Fresh Hub has had in the Houston community.

“They really did it on their own. [Fresh Hub] was very much student-motivated and student-developed,” Fisher says. She advised the two as they developed the app, answering questions through lunch breaks and downtime. “Technology nowadays is so powerful, that young people can have this extraordinary impact that I don't think a lot of teenagers had 30 years ago. You can reach hundreds of thousands of [people] in just minutes.”

Courtesy of Shirley and Annie Zhu

Food insecurity is personal to the sisters. When their parents immigrated to the United States from China in 2001, they faced a period of financial hardship. During that time, their local supermarket in Montana gave out free groceries every Friday, which helped them stay afloat.

“In a way, the community was able to help [our parents] so it feels like Annie and I are now able to give back to that community,” Shirley says. They see their parents’ faces in every Fresh Hub beneficiary.

Samiha Zaman, a 2020 graduate of Bellaire High School, sees volunteering with Fresh Hub as a way to continue living by her Muslim beliefs. She calls Annie and Shirley role models for the student body.

“They're really amazing leaders; very organized. They were able to motivate us and keep all of us on track when we were planning [the food distribution] events,” Zaman, 18, says of the Zhu sisters. “They put in a lot of work in making sure the monthly events are successful.”

Anyone can have great intentions, but the reality is you have to understand what’s going on in your community before taking action.

As of the summer of 2020, what started in their high school has now expanded to more than 100 volunteers across other schools in the area. For Shirley and Annie, bringing together pre-existing local organizations and other students, especially those in middle school, is integral to the project's future. “We want to make sure [Fresh Hub] is sustainable,” Shirley says. “That's why we reach out to middle school volunteers and get them involved, so they can continue carrying this on even after we leave high school.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020, the sisters pivoted to meet the new challenge. The duo updated the Fresh Hub website in April to include a tab where people could request a contactless food delivery straight to their front door. That same month, they joined forces with the Nurse Family Partnership Program in Sunnyside — a free nationwide program that assigns a registered nurse to visit pregnant women at home up until the baby is 2 years old — to deliver groceries to first-time mothers in low-income communities receiving Medicaid or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The median age of the moms in the program is 19 years old.

Nicole Rogers, a registered nurse with the program, saw Fresh Hub’s impact for her client, a college student in her third trimester of pregnancy. “She told me, ‘They gave me ribs, watermelon; really good food.’ She was really appreciative to [receive] those, she was super grateful for it,” Rogers recalls the young woman telling her. “It really helped her a lot.”

Courtesy of Shirley and Annie Zhu

Annie and Shirley aspire to help many others like Rogers’ client. They envision Fresh Hub going nationwide, and want to see other students use technology to improve their local communities. “I’m always shocked at just how wide the possibilities are with tech. There are actually so many tech resources out there, and the biggest thing is using them and learning how to implement them,” Annie says.

The sisters recognize that existing social and economic equality gaps in access to communication tech, as well as the lingering gender and racial inequities in STEM fields, can be obstacles for aspiring entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, they encourage people, at any age and regardless of their background, to explore ways to use tech to impact their communities. “Do your research. Anyone can have great intentions, but the reality is you have to understand what’s going on in your community before taking action,” Annie advises. “For us, that meant looking at organizations that already existed in Houston that would be able to help us, because there’s never any use in trying to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be afraid to build and collaborate.”

They both hope to continue using technology in their next endeavor: college. Shirley plans to study computer science to work with nonprofits, while Annie is interested in studying computational linguistics. Until then, they continue planning their next food deliveries, as they’ve done monthly since 2018.

“[Fresh Hub] takes a lot of time, commitment, a lot of effort and — as the leaders — a lot of coordinating and management,” Shirley says. “It's definitely exhausting at times. But because it’s so rewarding being able to see that we can help relieve a burden on these community members, it makes it all worthwhile.”