UT student Jonathan Wong develops web app to prevent food costs from eating up student budgets

Celesia Smith

Off-campus students generally have the option of cooking for themselves or paying full price for on-campus dining halls, but one student decided to find his own economical option. After seven months and 10,943 lines of code, he has one.

Business honors and management information systems sophomore Jonathan Wong turned the shortage of accessible, affordable food options for off-campus students into a business. Last semester, Wong began drafting SwipeMeIn, a web app that allows off-campus students to purchase cheaper meals by paying on-campus students real money for their Dine In Dollars. The platform, expected to launch after spring break, also allows users to donate excess on-campus currencies to nearby food pantries.

While the idea for SwipeMeIn came to Wong during a conversation with a friend in Jester Residence Hall, the young entrepreneur began developing the app at the HackTX hackathon in October 2018. Wong and his team of UT Turing Scholars won “Best Hack That Helps The Community and/or Environment” and “Best Use of Data Against Hunger.”

“I found that UT wastes over $1 million in dining hall account funds annually. Then I saw UT Outpost was a food pantry that had just opened,” Wong said. “I noticed an opportunity to take economic and food waste that was occurring in the dining hall system and turn it into monetary value that could be reinvested into students, especially food insecure students.”

Since HackTX, Wong has coded the rest of the web app and worked with Mary Catherine Arnott, a business honors and finance sophomore, on business strategy, marketing and stakeholder communication. The duo plans to launch the beta version of SwipeMeIn next week.

Some students see an immediate need for an app like SwipeMeIn. Applied learning and development sophomore Arturo Galindo said he would like to donate his unused Dine In Dollars instead of losing or spending them in bulk at the end of the semester.

“It would be real nice to have that option and know that your Dine In Dollars aren’t going to waste,” Galindo, who works as a cashier at Jester City Market, said. “I feel like, as a person living on-campus, that a lot of our meal plans go to waste.”

Despite interest from some students, Wong said a challenging aspect of SwipeMeIn has been getting people to commit to adopting the product. However, he said users won’t regret using his platform.

“To go from an idea to making it and then to getting people to use it is so much harder than I ever expected,” Wong said. “The rewarding part will be knowing people who use (the app) are gaining value from it from every single side.”

Ultimately, Wong said he wants SwipeMeIn to deliver this value on a larger scale.

“Hopefully what (SwipeMeIn) does is expose a major flaw in the current dining hall system and incentivize people who supply food in universities to reduce waste and use that money to help students and people who really need it,” Wong said.

Arnott said the community impact is first in the team’s mind.

“We saw a huge problem (in on-campus dining halls) and figured out a more or less simple way to fix it (through SwipeMeIn),“ Arnott said. “Students can buy a meal, save money and help a Longhorn in need.”