During the summer of 2012 while volunteering in an after-school program in Mumbai, India, graduate student Noopur Agarwal made an unsettling discovery. She noticed that on Fridays, when the school would give kids food packages to take home for the weekend, there was always a sharp rise in attendance.
“While I was helping teach a specific handful of kids, ranging from 13 to 15 years old, the teacher would give them a snack every day,” Agarwal said. “It would often be the first thing they would eat all day. But on Fridays, when we would send home bigger packages of fruits and vegetables for the weekend, we noticed attendance would go up.”
Agarwal said the group of kids she was working with at the time were of high school age and many had obligations to their families, lending to the low attendance rates during the week.
“Unfortunately, a lot of [the kids] would work to earn a wage to put food on the table for their family instead of going to school,” she said. “I thought there was an opportunity there – to get donations and beef up the meals that way, and if we’re providing more substantial meal packages then maybe there would be better attendance.”
Taking these firsthand experiences she had in India, the graphic and interactive design graduate student was able to put what she learned to use.
While in her graduate thesis course last spring, Agarwal was given the theme of “crisis” by graphic and interactive design professor Kelly Holohan.
“Our graduate program uses a method of authorship and the only parameter is a theme. The theme I gave [last spring] was ‘crisis,’” Holohan said. “[Agarwal] has a background where she had gone to India and worked with kids in the schools, so she came up with this idea of an exchange with U.S. high school students.”
The project that Agarwal created, entitled “Nashta Exchange,” is based on the idea of sharing food and culture between high school students in America and India.
“There is an Indian street food that I eat every time I go over there called pav bhaji, which is an Indian sloppy-joe,” she said. “So, basically I combined this idea of setting up a stand that sells pav bhaji and all of the proceeds go to feeding the underprivileged kids in Mumbai.”
Agarwal’s goal with this project is for high schoolers in the U.S. to have the opportunity to help feed less privileged students in India, but more importantly, to connect with each other on a personal level in a cultural exchange.
“In order to take it past the idea of colonialism where it’s the rich American kids coming in and helping, I want it to facilitate a true exchange,” Agarwal said. “That’s why I have this website where the two groups can actually talk to each other and blog and track their progress.”
The website and the overall project flourished once she was awarded the 2013 “Design Ignites Change” student fellowship for $5,000 this past summer.
“The grant that I was given gives me funding and support to get the initial pilot project off the ground,” Agarwal said. “Right now, I have narrowed down the school that I’m working with in India and the teacher, and about four or five students that will correspond with American high school students.”
On Sept. 20, Agarwal chose Plymouth Meeting High School. Four or five students at this school will be participating.
Agarwal is working on a business plan that will outline how to set up their own pav bhaji stand.
“The project I had for the class was more of a mock-up, so now I am actually bringing it into fruition,” Agarwal said. “The school that I am working with will potentially get this box, and the box will have a manual that has the recipe and all the dos and don’ts of creating this stand.”
Aside from how to create the food, Agarwal said this project is customizable for each school, with the potential to make it their own.
“The box also has stickers and stamps so you can brand your stand,” she said. “You can have the identity on the tablecloth or on the napkins or on the plates, but I have also made it so that if you don’t have access to those things, you can really just have the stand, to try and cut down all of the overhead costs. It’s kind of like a DIY restaurant.”
Agarwal said while there are still preparations to be made, such as finding the right location for the stands, she is hoping that by next semester they will be ready to open.
“Right now, we are still very much in the logistics stage,” she said. “But next semester we will actually go into implementation. World Studio, where I actually got the grant from, is providing me with some mentors and a celebrity chef who has yet to be named, to come in and help me and the kids with food prep.”
Having the ability to take design experience and turn it into activism is something Agarwal and Holohan said is relevant in the industry.
“I think in our field there is kind of a buzzword right now, that design is entrepreneur and it is great to see that that can actually happen,” Agarwal said. “That you can take authorship in something and actually bring something to life is cool to see.”
She said there is a question of whether or not design can help make change, and working on this project has helped her bring that idea into perspective.
“I like to have a social aspect to whatever I do, and sometimes it can be disheartening to think that you can actually make change,” she said. “But there is a debate in the design community right now of whether or not what we do can actually help and save lives, and a part of me now thinks, yes, we actually can.”
Alexa Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.