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Stanford students develop app to boost nutrition for low-income Californians

A team of Stanford Biodesign students is developing an app that aims to help low-income Californians improve their diet.

The team, which coalesced during the "Biodesign for mobile health" course last fall, took advantage of a new program, called Biodesign NEXT, which provides mentorship, funding, and academic credit to allow students to keep working on promising projects after the 10-week academic quarter ends.

The "Biodesign for mobile health" class helps students address unmet health needs through the development of mobile applications and technologies. This team, including first-year medical students Alejandro Aguirre and Ryan Brewster, undergraduate product design student Taylor Sihavong, and graduate bioengineering student Akshay Chaudhari, came together around a shared interest in using mobile technology to expand the services and resources available to underserved populations.

Specifically, the students decided to tackle the health problems experienced by users of CalFresh, the program that provides food purchasing assistance to more than 4 million low-income Californians. Research has found that while CalFresh helps recipients get enough food to eat, because of barriers that include cost and preparation time, most of that food is pre-packaged and low in nutrition. As a result, CalFresh recipients have elevated blood sugar levels as compared to the regular population, and the majority are overweight or obese. The result is a high rate of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.

To address these issues, the team is developing a mobile app named NuLeaf that facilitates healthier eating by providing culturally sensitive recipe recommendations tailored to user preferences, guidelines for the dietary management of health conditions, and localized, up-to-date grocery price and availability data. Brewster explained in a recent Biodesign article:

We chose the nutritional space because it is an area in which low-income communities are severely disadvantaged, and because of the power of diet to shape health and disease... We believe that a digital solution is particularly appropriate because it can broaden access to services and resources that wouldn't otherwise be available to our target population.

The team made significant progress on NuLeaf during the class, including conducting user focus groups and initiating a promising relationship with Second Harvest Food Bank. The project was voted best-in-class by a panel of independent judges, which qualified the team for funding from Biodesign NEXT. Over the next academic quarter, the team worked to solidify relationships with key partners, conduct more focus groups, build a first generation product and prepare to seek external funding. They also added a team member, Leo Shaw, a graduate student in chemical engineering, who has technical expertise in prototyping mobile applications.

Now, they are continuing to refine the app in preparation for its launch.

Previously: Biodesign students display health care innovations,  Who's hungry? You can't tell by looking and Stanford medical student juggles his studies, graphic art and numerous extracurriculars
Photo by StanfordMedicineStaff

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