What's the opposite of a food desert*? An oasis. So that's the working title of the software/project to fix one of the problems in my neighborhood.

In a perfect world

I'll try not to sound too much like a 1950's "House of the Future!!!" thing.

Mom* opens up the menu planner on her phone. It knows what there is in the pantry, the fridge, and the freezer, and she tells it what the budget is for the week. She tells it the meal schedule - between her and Dad there are three part-time jobs, and you take hours when you can get them - and which meal each family member is going to be at, or will be needing leftovers from. It already knows the ages of the kids, and that one is allergic to eggs. It knows what stores are close to the house, and she tells it she can make a trip to the full-service store later in the week.

She plans the meals. The planner already knows the family's food history, so it can suggest favorite recipes that haven't been used in awhile, or ones that will use up a soon-to-expire product. It can give her a running total of the grocery bill, and when everything needs to be bought. It can run a nutrition analysis and suggest changes, either tweaks to existing recipes (replacing 73%-lean ground beef with a smaller amount of a lower-fat grind, to keep the protein the same and cut down the fat, slipping in filler vegetables where they won't be noticed) or new recipes. One new recipe includes some unfamiliar terminology, so she clicks through "braising" to a video, where she discovers that it's just something she didn't know the terminology for - and maybe learns a little about when and why to use it. Another recipe calls for a rice cooker, but she doesn't have one. It remembers that, and has a link to a page explaining alternatives. Another uses eggs, but has a suggestion for a substitution.

Meanwhile, one of the local stores is a new concept, or rather a very old one. It's in an old storefront, that was a neighborhood grocery almost a hundred years ago. Back then, customers arrived by streetcar, told the grocer at the counter what they needed, and his stockboy filled the order for them. Or they phoned it in and it went on the weekly delivery route. Today, that's pretty much how it works again. when Mom is done making her meal plan, she sends it to the store. Instead of handwritten bits of paper, the stocker has a tablet with a scanner gun, but the process is otherwise the same. Some customers set their orders for pickup - the store is convenient to suburban commuters leaving downtown, and curbside grocery loading is part of the service. Others, like Mom, are within the store's delivery range. And now and then someone drops in and uses the tablets at the counter to place an order on the spot.

Because the store is linked to its customers' meal planners and knows their history, it can do some predictive, just-in-time ordering. Shelf space is very limited after all, even though not having customers browsing them means the store can be much more efficient. When enough customers are putting an item on their lists that the store doesn't stock, it can consider carrying it. When its suppliers have special pricing - say, on seasonal produce, or promotions - it can push that information out to customers who can plan their meals accordingly. In fact, customers have some transparency into the suppliers' databases as well. The store doesn't usually stock low-demand items, but customers can see what's available for special-order, and can even put their names on an "I'd like to try this" list, where an item with a large minimum order waits for enough interest. Overall, prices are still a little higher than the big-box stores, but they're competitive - enough that customers pick it either because they need the delivery, or they just like the convenience.

Naturally, there's a social network involved too. A group of young couples formed a dinner club - they share recipes, and meet at a different couple's house every week. A local church has a Wednesday-night dinner, and publishes its menu through the software - sometimes Mom takes the kids over when the schedule allows, because everyone pays through the app so no one has to know what she does or doesn't enter in the "donation" field. The senior center partners older adults living alone with others in the same situation, or with nearby families who are willing to welcome a guest at the table now and then. A foodie group coordinates its "I'd like to try this" lists and makes special orders.

The concept fits a small town just as well as an old urban neighborhood, which is kind of a big deal around here. Rural Kansas towns are dying off when they lose their grocery stores.

The less-perfect reality

None of that is super-hard to code; cooking is just a small-scale, highly customized manufacturing process. Sure, the bill of materials is a thicket of exceptions - ground beef comes in leannesses ranging from 73% (or lower) to 98%, and sometimes you can substitute, say, crumbled pre-cooked hamburger patties, sometimes not, and if you have to you can pad the amount with filler, or replace it with TVP if you're vegan, or whatever. Standardizing recipes is pretty labor-intensive. It relies on having reasonably complete and accurate nutrition info on a huge array of commercial products. But it's not insurmountable. The question is, can it be done in the tiny brain of a low-end smartphone with limited data connectivity?

I started on the project awhile back. Downloaded the USDA food databases, started a nice little RESTful web backend, figuring the heavy lifting could all happen serverside and a lightweight Javascript client (for the web) or Android/IOS client (for the phones) would be easier to support. Problem is, my target audience - sure, I'm counting on appealing to the well-connecting tech generation for the bulk of my customers, but really this is about getting groceries to the marginalized folks in my neighborhood - my target audience can't really count on having a live data connection during all this. Probably.

Somewhat unintentionally, I have a pretty good test bed. I've had an ASUS Transformer (tablet with a detachable keyboard; more of a netbook than a tablet the way I use it) with wifi for some time, and because I work with pretty much every business and church in Delano I have enough private wifi passwords that I haven't needed a smartphone. Some while back the speaker finally died on my seven-year-old dumbphone. Paid $50 for a ZTE Valet, and $100 for a one-year Tracfone card. It's slow, it's tiny, it has a genuinely awful fixed-focus camera… in short, if someone has a smartphone it's not likely to be much less capable than mine. And in fact because when you're poor that's likely to be the only computing device you've got (or because a friend who owed you money "paid" you with an iPhone, or whatever) you probably put a little more money into yours than I did. So the working poor are generally covered.

That still doesn't reach the older demographic, who are unlikely to be able to deal with the 3.5" screen. There's not much room for simplifying things for complete newbies there, after all. This is a problem because in that perfect world I'd like Grandma to be able to scan her paper recipe and OCR it in. That isn't going to happen when the camera on my phone (which proved completely unable to use bar-code recognition on the meal planner apps I played with), and getting Grandma something like a Pi-based device she can plug into her TV starts to get less affordable when you have to add a scanner or camera.

Assuming we get everyone on board with functioning devices, then what? We've been noodling around with the idea of a food co-op already, so that's our new-concept local store. The grocery business is a cutthroat one, but we have a local grocery owner who's interested in either cooperating with us or maybe in launching his own store (which would be good; co-op stores are a great community-builder but we don't have anyone with experience doing it, and would have to take the time to "capacity-build" to get a co-op team, or put it on our own overloaded board.

I also haven't even touched on the financial aspect - a lot of people in poverty are "underbanked," which means our delivery driver is going to be picking up cash. Delano is not a high-crime neighborhood (in fact, our neighborhood association is struggling because attendance is pretty much linked with perception of crime, and doggone it our community police officer won't even let me stage a fake crime wave), but that's still asking for trouble. Taking WIC or SNAP is pretty straightforward, except that when you're collecting all that nutrition data there will be righteous types who insist on making it mandatory to report it to Big Brother.

And there is a certain Big-Brother-ish aspect to collecting everyone's information like that. That big-box store is going to be real interested in our data, and in using it to out-do our little local store. No doubt Amazon's already looking into doing a lot of this sort of thing - a friend of mine is a bookstore owner, so I already know it's not a good idea to be a small operator in a field Amazon wants to own. And there's the enormous tech-support nightmare of trying to get a whole neighborhood full of low-end, mismatched hardware working reliably enough for people, many of them technically semi-literate, to buy in to using the system - and it really takes a lot of buy-in to see some of the benefits start to kick in.

And the Big Brother issue comes up when thinking about funding. The software could maybe be done on a shoestring; like I said in a previous post, I'd like to go back to the workforce but it's not necessary for the household. If we have to build a co-op, well, that's a problem but it's a solved one - it just takes a lot of fundraising and share-selling legwork. But getting equipment and more importantly network access into people's hands, without getting into strings-attached grants or other funding… that's tougher. I still have a lot of thinking to do on that end of things.

* Actually about the time this got public acceptance, the term is already falling out of fashion: Delano, for instance, doesn't have a problem of no food being available. The problem is that most food is of the processed, salt-laden convenience-food variety. Which is a whole 'nother problem, because that's what sells, not (just) what's cheapest/highest-margin. When you work multiple jobs, or don't own much cookware, or don't have a full kitchen, or do but some major appliances don't work, or you don't know how to cook from scratch, or you're a single-person household and it's just not worth cooking for yourself, or any combination of these… sometimes cooking a normal meal is an unattainable luxury and so you're stuck with whatever easy-to-fix stuff you can afford. But for now, we'll just go with "food desert" and kind of try to address the other issues along the way.

* It's almost always Mom, even though Dad's probably around.

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