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Using AI and Data Science to ReNOURISH Food Deserts

The NOURISH platform designed to help small businesses increase access to healthy, sustainable food enters a new project phase

Published March 22, 2024

A woman selects from a colorful array of vegetables at an outdoor market.

By Cynthia Dillon, SDSC Communications

Twenty-four million Americans live in food deserts where ultraprocessed foods are abundant and fresh food is scarce, giving rise to large health disparities in diabetes and related cardiometabolic diseases. To address this problem, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from UC San Francisco and UC San Diego conceptualized the NOURISH platform, winning support last year from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program to design the tool. Now, with continued NSF and U.S. Department of Agriculture funding, the team of experts has moved into the platform-building phase.

NOURISH is meant to provide small business owners in food desert communities with access to loans and grants, online maps that optimize the placement of fresh food outlets for foot traffic, help with navigating the convoluted business permitting process and AI-enabled guidance on affordable ways to locally source fresh ingredients.

“Our solution complements government efforts to get fresh food into food deserts by incentivizing grocery stores and big box outlets to sell more fresh food,” said Laura Schmidt of UC San Francisco, principal investigator for the project. “But our approach builds upon the often-overlooked assets of these communities, including the entrepreneurial talent of small business owners, rich and diverse food heritages, and an unmet demand for fresh food.”

Under the leadership of Amarnath Gupta, a team of computer scientists, software developers and students at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego are combining government, private sector and crowdsourced information to create dynamic, interactive maps of local food systems across the U.S. Gupta is a leading computer scientist in the Cyberinfrastructure and Convergence Research and Education (CICORE) Division at SDSC, directed by Ilkay Altintas.

“NOURISH embodies our vision at SDSC’s CICORE Division, where our deep expertise in data science and knowledge management seamlessly integrates with the diverse needs of our interdisciplinary and cross-sector partners. Together, we co-create solutions that are not just equitable but deeply impactful, tackling complex societal challenges head-on,” said Altintas,  who also serves as SCSC’s chief data science officer. “In an era where access to equitable access to fresh food is still hard, NOURISH emerges as a solution to leverage cutting-edge technology to bridge the gap between communities and an ecosystem of entrepreneurship, innovation and cultural diversity. We look forward to seeing the growing impact of this project over the years to come.”

Accessible from a mobile phone in multiple languages, the NOURISH platform will include patented recommendation algorithms that customize business plans based on local consumer preferences for price, convenience and flavor.

“Recent advances in scalable data systems and artificial intelligence give us an unprecedented opportunity to use NOURISH to democratize data access, creating a more level playing field between large food companies and small businesses,” Gupta said.

Small businesses have relatively low start-up costs, are adaptive to local needs and can help to keep economic resources circulating within low-income communities. Community partners assisting with NOURISH also emphasize the benefits of promoting culturally appropriate food.

“A major asset of so-called ‘food deserts’ are immigrants who bring diverse cuisines featuring traditional dishes that are typically healthier than the standard American diet. This platform will help people from the community make wholesome food for the community,” said Paul Watson, a California-based food equity advocate and director of community engagement for NOURISH.

Other scientists on the team include Keith Pezzoli and Ilya Zaslavsky (UC San Diego), Hans Taparia (New York University), Tera Fazzino (University of Kansas) and Matthew Lange (IC-FOODS). In 2024-25, the NOURISH team will test the platform in lower-income areas within San Diego and Imperial counties in California, and then scale it nationally.