New UH Project Combats Food Insecurity Through AI

Digital Platform Aims to Help Food-Insecure Texans Access Nutritious Meals

Food pantry shelves

One in eight Texans experiences food insecurity, according to the non-profit agency Feeding America. That means 1.4 million Texas households are food insecure, with limited or inconsistent access to nutritious food for an active, healthy life. The USDA's most recent survey on the issue reported that Texas is among the top nine U.S. states with a higher prevalence of food insecurity than the national average.

To address this issue, a University of Houston-led team is developing an artificial intelligence-based platform that can support the food charity ecosystem through data-driven technologies.

"The commitment of our team is to help our fellow neighbors," said Ioannis Kakadiaris, principal investigator and Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of Computer Science at UH's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "This is evident in everything we do and permeates all our work."

Funded by a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the project aims to help food pantries communicate with other pantries, food donors, and agencies while also helping to provide culturally aware and personalized food to clients.

On the demand side, there must be the identification of the nutritional needs, cultural preferences, and food preparation equipment and supplies of food-insecure households, according to Kakadiaris. If someone does not know what a particular food is or how to prepare it, it will go to waste, and the efforts of the food charity ecosystem will fail, he added. On the supply side, there needs to be streamlined logistics, improved communication, and coordinated efforts between the various stakeholders in the food charity system to optimize the supply chain so that inefficiencies are minimized.

The platform will potentially use food delivery services like DoorDash to transfer the food. In turn, food donors could be rewarded for their charitable donations.

"Donors could receive NFT (non-fungible tokens) that will say how good of a donor they have been in the past month," Kakadiaris said. "I envision having gold, silver, or bronze donors, depending on how much food they have donated over the past month or week."

Headshot of Ioannis Kakadiaris
Ioannis Kakadiaris is Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished
University Professor of Computer Science and director of UH's
Computational Biomedicine Lab.

The research team from UH includes Norma Olvera, professor of education and a USDA E. Kika de la Garza Fellow; Elizabeth Anderson-Fletcher, associate professor of supply chain management in the C. T. Bauer College of Business and Hobby School of Public Affairs; and Susie Gronseth, professor of education. From the University of Texas is Junfeng Jiao, associate professor and director of the Urban Information Lab in the School of Architecture.

"We will offer users and stakeholders healthy and culturally appropriate recipes using this platform," said Olvera.

Jiao adds that they will ensure AI is fair, safe, transparent and accessible to all parties.

"This is a multi-disciplinary team that brings a variety of expertise to the table," said Anderson-Fletcher. The team is partnering with Alison Reese, executive director of Souper Bowl of Caring. Souper Bowl of Caring, home of the Tackle Hunger Map, is a non-profit that uses its digital platform to fundraise for both small and large food charities across the country.

This UH project is one of sixteen projects awarded nationwide, totaling $11 million through the NSF's Convergence Accelerator program that focuses on advancing regenerative agricultural practices and providing equitable and affordable nutritious food options.

"Food and nutrition security is a new focus for the Convergence Accelerator's portfolio, and we are excited to welcome these teams into our program," said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator. "We hope to create a group of synergistic efforts that advance regenerative agriculture practices, reduce water usage, provide equitable access to nutritious and affordable food for disadvantaged communities, and spur technology and job creation."

Kakadiaris' team has been funded through Phase 1 of their project. The Convergence Accelerator teams will submit formal Phase 2 proposals for additional support of up to $5 million.