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NOURISH reimagines the food business to try to prevent food deserts

In the Mountain View neighborhood of San Diego there’s a small mall on Imperial Avenue. It has a Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Sizzler and a dollar store that’s going out of business. What you don’t see is any full service grocery store.

This low income neighborhood is a food desert, where convenience stores selling processed foods are not hard to find.

But this same neighborhood is also home to Ocean View Growing Grounds that’s devoted to food education and social action. It is run by a community nonprofit called Global Action Research Center, or Global ARC.


“One of the things we’ve done over the past year is we’ve interviewed many, many existing restaurants, and businesses, caterers, food trucks, already in existence, to try to find out what kind of information they need when they first got started. And also what they need now,” said Paul Watson, the president of Global ARC.

“The question is, are you producing healthy food, and is this a tool that will help you do that,” he said.

The tool Watson is talking about is an app that will have access to huge databases that can take an idea for a business, map it out for the entrepreneur and provide the information they need.

It’s being created by a project called NOURISH, a partnership between universities and community groups that’s funded by the U.S. Agriculture Department and the National Science Foundation.

The project’s principal investigator said they are not trying to convince stores like Ralphs or Vons to move into the neighborhood.


What we’re doing at NOURISH is trying to think of alternatives to stimulate small business development with local business owners in these communities. In low income communities in America you have a lot of recent immigrants who are really entrepreneurial,” said Laura Schmidt, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco.

She and her partners say one thing a lot of immigrants know how to make and market is food. NOURISH has enlisted the help of UCSD’s SuperComputer Center to create a computer model that could lead them in the right direction.

Computer and research scientist Amarnath Gupta has also talked to a lot of would-be food entrepreneurs.

“I consider conversations data,” he said.

In partnership with the Small Business Administration (SBA), Gupta is working to create the app, infused with artificial intelligence. It will be able to consult with an aspiring business person through their smartphone or their laptop and give them the information they need.

He said data about food markets, supply lines, foot traffic and business licensing is out there. But it’s very hard for an aspiring entrepreneur to find.

“If you keep adding the conditions needed for her to actually start a business, you’ll find there is no one information source to which she can get all of this,” Gupta said. “It’s all disparate. It’s all unconnected. And the veracity of the information she gets from the web is a problem.”

The app is meant to work in tandem with a human SBA consultant. Gupta demonstrates on a model platform, which responds to his cues by showing the growth of some food markets.

NOURISH will test its system in two local food deserts, one in the city of San Diego and another in a rural setting in Imperial County. Paul Watson said the mission of his group, Global ARC, is not just making quality food available in food deserts. It’s social change.

“So part of what we look at, (with) NOURISH, is the ability to have local entrepreneurs, who can hire people within their own communities. That could really get these businesses thriving and growing so that we can keep that money flowing within our communities and not extract it like the big-box corporations do,” he said.

That's how he imagines the food business should work, and maybe solve the problem of food deserts.