THE BLOG
12/02/2015 10:35 am ET | Updated Dec 02, 2016

Math Matters (But Actually): We Can Solve Hunger With Numbers

Hear me out.

I hated math in high school. In my 10th grade diary, I referred to geometry as 'a bunch of self-important shapes searching for nonexistent meaning.' (Sorry, Mr. Cutler.) At 16, I was full of sarcasm and empty of self-awareness, convinced learning trig was a waste of time and a distraction from the side project holding all my interest: trying to build a website for emergency food providers. Math felt like an exercise in frustration and wholly disconnected from trying to feed people struggling with hunger.

I was wrong.

I was trying to build a program that made it easier for emergency feeding systems like food pantries to communicate with each other and their donors. The idea, which I called MEANS (Matching Excess And Need for Stability), made sense in my head, but I couldn't get it to translate to a computer. That changed when I met Grant Nelson, a GWU law student who grew up 45 minutes from my Iowa hometown. A self-taught programmer, he looked at my idea and said, "I think I can build that." He did.

Grant became MEANS' co-founder and director of tech. He'd only been inside a food pantry once and I'd never seen real computer code. It was a huge learning curve for both of us, and one I couldn't have calculated the arc of if my life depended on it. As Grant introduced me to the concept of data science, it was clear I owed a few high school math teachers an apology. (Sorry, guys. I hope this makes up for some of the masterful eye rolls I sent your subject's way over the years.)

I'm 20 now, and while my sarcasm supply is still aplenty, I've done a 180 on how I feel about math. (See what I did there?) There are now 11 young people, age 18 to 27, on Team MEANS, and we're working with hundreds of users representing thousands of programs and partnerships to reduce food waste and hunger at the same time. We're using a whole lot of math to do it, from tackling big data to determine the food pantries most likely to need and use MEANS to developing a public directory of emergency food resources around the country. It was because of meticulous record-keeping and data science that we discovered that as many as 50% of online listings for emergency food providers have incorrect contact information, and it is through coding and more data science that we're working to fix it. Math isn't the problem I thought it was - it's the solution.

MEANS is an incredibly simple idea. Food pantries tell our system where they are, what they need and how far they're willing to travel to get it. The same platform allows pantries to notify their neighbor agencies when they're overwhelmed with a too-large donation, with traditional donors like grocery stores and restaurants able to use the same website to get food into the hands of the hungry. Our concept is simple and the execution extraordinarily complicated. Without math and its cooler cousin data science, we could have never brought MEANS to life.

Math matters, for developing strategy, discovering the big picture and daring to think as differently as we have about hunger and food waste. Math can draw us a map of where to go next and numbers can lead us down paths we never considered before. There is too much need in this world to be focused solely on doing good - we have to also focus on doing that good well. Hunger is an enormous problem, and with 48 million Americans struggling to put food on the table, we need absolutely every tool we can find to build smart, sustainable solutions. MEANS lives in the space where empathy and entrepreneurship meet, and I'm so proud of a staff that never aims low and is always pushing for new goals. Charity can and should have a big brain to match its big heart. After all, if I remember correctly...with the right team, it's possible to build an equation where the limit does not exist.

Maria Rose Belding is a (mostly) reformed high school math class nap-taker and co-founder/executive director of the MEANS Database. Now a college sophomore, Maria Rose is a nationally published writer on hunger and poverty, and the resources she developed for high schoolers tackling food insecurity are in the hands of more than a thousand students in schools in nine countries. She was recognized as a L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth in 2015 for making an extraordinary difference in her community.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2015 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2016, please visit womenofworth.com.