'He is a gift to the community': Libertyville teen's app connects food pantries with volunteers

Growing up in Libertyville, Tavish Sharma habitually volunteered with local charities, such as Feed My Starving Children and Northern Illinois Food Bank, because his parents encouraged him toward service.

His inspirational moment came at age 12, while visiting cousins in San Francisco on New Year's Day.

"It's always been tradition in my family, and I guess culture as well ... to start the new year with a good deed," said Sharma, now 18, an Indian American and a senior at Libertyville High School.

That year, Sharma's good deed was serving breakfast to a long line of homeless people at the campus of University of California, Berkeley. It made him realize that hunger is a huge problem in the United States that "was getting overlooked."

"At that young age, I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what," he said.

Fast-forward to February 2020. Sharma was volunteering with local food pantries when he had another eye-opening experience.

"Around when COVID started to hit, when people started getting laid off, I saw that these food banks were filled with people," he said. "Unemployment was rising and food insecurity was growing. I vividly remember one day, I went to drop off food and I saw, literally, a milelong line of cars.

"That image is still in my head. (It) changed how I thought about hunger, and I realized that this was again a bigger issue than I ever thought it was going to be."

It led Sharma to create Solve Hunger Corp for people who want to help but don't know how. The free mobile app connects users with food banks, pantries and soup kitchens in their communities, allowing them to donate money, food or their time.

Food banks also can post sign-ups for volunteer shifts and fundraisers. The app now helps people connect with roughly 60 food banks, pantries and soup kitchens serving more than 85,000 people in 13 states, Sharma said.

For that, Sharma was named a 2022 Prudential Emerging Visionary and Ashoka Changemaker. He is among 25 young people ages 14 to 18 from across the country selected for Prudential's inaugural class of visionaries for their innovative solutions to pressing financial and societal challenges in their communities.

Sharma received $5,000 in funding for his project at a weekend Prudential awards summit in Newark, New Jersey, which ended Tuesday.

"The students we're honoring have a sense of possibility that drives them to look beyond themselves," Prudential Chairman and CEO Charles Lowrey said in a news release. "Their vision and dedication are key to creating fully inclusive communities, and we are humbled and inspired by their work."

Young visionaries were selected based on four main criteria: their solution is innovative, it can create meaningful impact in the future and can scale to a wider community, it demonstrates a deep understanding of the issue, and it inspires the visionary to lead or take action and motivates others to do the same.

In Illinois, Sharma's app provides information on roughly 30 food pantries run by local communities, townships, faith-based groups and other nonprofits. The way he measures its impact and success is through "thank you notes" from people who run the pantries.

St. Joseph's Food Pantry in Libertyville, managed by the Knights of Columbus, was among the first to sign on and benefit from Sharma's efforts. He had volunteered there for years to help organize food collection drives, said Dan Love, a Libertyville village trustee and volunteer lead for the pantry.

Love met Sharma before he started working on the idea for the app.

"At that time, we were serving 400 families a month," Love said. "Last month, we served 1,255 families."

Though he can't quantify it, Love said word-of-mouth through Sharma's app likely has helped secure more donations.

"This is wonderful because we need support to run our food pantry," said Love, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Sharma's Prudential award nomination.

"He is just a great young man," Love said. "How many young men in today's society will develop an app to help feed people? When you find young people like that, you just really want to support them. He is a gift to the community."

With an eye toward heading to college this fall, Sharma also is planning the future of his Solve Hunger platform.

"Wherever I go to school I'm going to take it with me," Sharma said. "It's going to be like my passion on the side, always. Now, I've gotten 13 states, but I want to get to 50. And I want to get to ... thousands of food banks."

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