University of Houston using Artificial Intelligence to combat food insecurity

With the latest headlines buzzing about Artificial Intelligence invoking fear in readers, it's understandable to have some hesitancy to hear about any positivity that comes from the new technology

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It certainly doesn't help when the majority of reports suggest AI is being used in schools and universities or the prospect of having your job replace you with it. 

Nonetheless, we would be remiss to consider the innovations that come with new technology and University of Houston is ensuring that some good comes out of it with a new project that looks to combat the ongoing, albeit often forgotten, issue of food insecurity. 

Who is paying for this?

According to a news report from the university's website, a new project funded by a $75,000 grant from the National Science Foundation "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." 

"The commitment of our team is to help our fellow neighbors," 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 explained in the report. "This is evident in everything we do and permeates all our work."

This project is one of 16 awarded through the NSF's Convergence Accelerator Program, focusing on advancing regenerative agricultural practices while also providing reasonably priced and 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," Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator told UH. "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."

What will it take?

For communities in need, Dr. Kakadiaris noted in the online report there needs to be proper accountability on the supply and demand side. 

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For instance, nutritional needs, cultural preferences, as well as food preparation equipment and supplies of food-insecure households must be identified on the demanding front. While on the supplying aspect, streamlined logistics are relied on as well as improved communication, and coordinated efforts between stakeholders in the food charity system to ensure reduced inefficiencies. 

In other words, everyone needs to be able to recognize where the problems lie and start making valiant efforts to fix them, or at least address them. 


Food delivery services like DoorDash could potentially be used, UH added, to help facilitate bringing meals to communities in need. 

Additionally, the project relies on food donors who could be rewarded for their charitable efforts. 

"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."

Who is working on this? 

Along with Dr. Kakadiaris as principal investigator, a majority of the researchers are UH faculty, including 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. 

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From the University of Texas is Junfeng Jiao, associate professor and director of the Urban Information Lab in the School of Architecture. To quell any fears, Dr. Jiao assured the university the team "will ensure AI is fair, safe, transparent and accessible to all parties."

The team is partnering with Alison Reese, executive director of Souper Bowl of Caring, home of the Tackle Hunger Map, a non-profit that uses its digital platform to fundraise for both small and large food charities across the country.

When does the project start? 

As of this writing, the team has been funded through the project's first phase. 


UH said the Convergence Accelerator teams will submit formal proposals in the second phase for additional support of up to $5 million.