Looking for a good meal on campus? There’s an app for that.
BU Food, an app that was released in the iTunes store at the beginning of September, is the brainchild of Santiago Beltran (ENG’17) and Darryl L. Johnson (ENG’17). The app posts weekly menus from campus dining halls in West Campus, Warren Towers, and Bay State Road in a convenient mobile format so students can explore what’s available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the touch of a button. “The menu information is all taken from BU, and we convert it over to an application format,” Beltran says. “It’s all about accessibility, so we worked on making sure that the information is delivered in a context that’s friendly for mobile users.”
But, the app does far more than tell users what is available in dining halls. Unlike the Dining Services website, BU Food has a sophisticated search feature that allows students to find specific dishes and navigate menus based on specific dietary needs. “With ‘Search,’ you can type in, ‘I love beef burritos, but I don’t know where they are,’ and the app will say, ‘On this day in this dining hall during lunch or dinner, beef burritos are available,’” Beltran explains. “Or, let’s say you can only eat gluten-free foods. You can type in ‘gluten-free’ and it brings up all the gluten-free items. We want to make this easy and accessible for people who have special dietary needs so they can find what’s available really quickly.” In addition, the app sends reminders to users about special dining hall events, like Make a Difference Monday and Lobster Night.
Beltran says that the app’s most innovative feature is “My Tummy,” which currently allows students to not only see the calorie and fat content of each dish served, but keep track of everything they eat. They can add anything they eat to their “Tummy,” which will take into account age, gender, and activity levels to determine how their eating habits match up with standard USDA dietary guidelines for food consumption. Beltran and Johnson worked closely with a nutritionist to ensure the accuracy of this part of the app.
The second version of the app, which Beltran anticipates will be out shortly, will include even more nutritional information, such as the amount of carbohydrates and proteins ingested. He says that “My Tummy” is aimed at helping students make healthier choices. “You can look at your complete nutritional sample and understand what kinds of dietary choices you’re making—if you do the same thing always or if you’re trying to achieve a certain weight, it will help you make informed decisions.”
Beltran says that the idea for BU Food was the result of a conversation with a friend on the Warren Towers 12C engineering floor. “We were asking around our floor last year and someone was like, ‘You know what would be awesome? You could have an app where you could see what’s available in the dining halls,’” he says. “And that pretty much sparked it all. Then, as we continued thinking about it, we didn’t want to just make a dining hall app. We wanted to add extra stuff. Adding all these extra features, we came up with a BU Food app that really encompasses a more holistic approach of what to eat.”
This is not Beltran and Johnson’s first foray into app design. Last January, they developed DevXApp, a start-up that aims at “creating the next generation of mobile applications.” DevXApp has developed the block game Tunnel Escape and the word search game Letter-er. They are also currently working on a Blackboard Learn–type app called Academica, which they have entered in the Verizon Powerful Answers Contest for the chance to win $1 million.
BU Food has about 1,200 users, but the number is growing rapidly as more students hear about the app. Users are particularly happy with the app’s navigability, its plethora of available information, and its dependability. “I use the app every day,” says health sciences major Heather Buckley (SAR’17). “Before meals, I look to see what they’re serving, as I typically would on the website. It was taking too long to open the Dining Services webpage on my phone and this makes it so much easier.”
Students love the “My Tummy” feature as well. “With my habit of stress eating, I use the app not only to see what they are serving for the current meal, but also to plan out meals for the rest of the week,” says Nikita Gawande (ENG’17), who is studying computer engineering. “It is important to know what you eat and have a healthy balance. This app is a way for students to make better choices.”
Beltran and Johnson, along with some fellow electrical and computer engineering classmates, plan to unveil a new version of the app in the iTunes store, as well as a version for Android users, by the end of October. Beltran says that the newest version will include more opportunities for user customization, more nutritional information, and the addition of food outside of BU dining halls. The app will start by adding options from BU-affiliated restaurants at the George Sherman Union before expanding to include popular Comm Ave restaurants, like NudPob and Pavement Coffeehouse.
More than anything, Beltran emphasizes, he is open to any student suggestions for making the app even more useful. “We want to make sure that our app is functional for our users,” he says. “It’s not just something we envisioned; it actually grows from the users’ point of view. So that’s something that’s always going to be evolving, and we’re very excited to see people starting to adopt it and telling their friends about it.”