Catholic Relief Services' annual Rice Bowl Program has added a new mobile app and a social media-based photo challenge to help Catholics observe Lent and to boost participation in efforts to fight hunger.

Eric Clayton, a rice bowl program officer with Catholic Relief Services, told CNA that the app will "give people a new way to experience Lent in a more immediate sense and in a more interactive sense."

"It's really going to expand the horizon of who will use the rice bowl program," he added.

For nearly four decades, Catholic Relief Services' rice bowl program has encouraged Catholics to fast, pray and give alms during Lent, collecting donations in cardboard bowls to be distributed to various charitable initiatives.

For the first time this year, participants can use a mobile app to track and enhance their Lenten commitment to prayer, fasting and charitable giving.

"I think this is really going to help new people to latch on to the program," Clayton said, adding that the app and social media program will also help longtime rice bowl participants "go deeper."

The mobile app, released Feb. 5 on iOS and Android operating systems, allows users to track the alms they deposit in their rice bowls and donate the money to Catholic Relief Services at any time. It also includes a prayerful reflection for each day of Lent and meatless recipes for Fridays.

Catholic Relief Services has also created a Lenten Photo Challenge to allow the public to share how they participate in the rice bowl program. The challenge asks participants to post rice bowl-related photos – which might include prayer, fasting or charity – on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag "#VivaLent."

The participant who posts the best photo will be awarded a fair trade Easter basket.

Clayton said the social media campaign asks people to consider how they use the rice bowl.

"We're asking people to send in images of themselves with their rice bowl or using rice bowl materials in creative ways, maybe at the center of your family table or at the center of your prayer group meeting," he explained.

Last year, Catholic Relief Services distributed more than 4 million rice bowls to over 13,000 schools, parishes, diocesan offices and colleges – more organizations than McDonald's restaurants in the U.S., Clayton noted.

Seventy-five percent of the alms collected through the program support worldwide relief initiatives. These include agriculture projects to improve harvests, sanitation projects to provide communities with clean water, and microfinance projects to help small businesses. Supported global initiatives also include education projects and mother and child health projects that provide health and nutrition services.

The remaining 25 percent of the money raised goes to support hunger and poverty relief efforts within the contributor's local diocese.

Clayton said the new app will "really makes the Lenten sacrifices immediate."

"It's going to hold you accountable in a tangible sense," he explained. A person who gives up purchasing their morning coffee for Lent may record cost of the coffee in the app, as may a family that gives up an expensive meal.

Also included in the app is a collection of stories from people who have overcome hunger and poverty with aid from Catholic Relief Services, helping participants to understand how their contributions can touch lives.

Clayton said the rice bowl program helps U.S. families and communities "to live simply and to be in solidarity" with the people from different countries learn about.