Meet the innovator behind the smart fridges providing free healthy food items in low-income areas

Dr. Leeja Carter, the CEO and founder of the Coalition for Food and Health Equity (CFHE), is also behind a smart refrigerator that supplies hospitals and schools with free, healthy food items.

While she started CFHE in response to the pandemic after noticing a rise in the number of people going without food, she now runs several initiatives, such as The Ujamaa Cafe and Ujamaa Well, which provide access to food and wellness innovations along with health and nutrition programs.

POCIT reported that the Ujamaa Cafe has now extended to include a fridge program, whereby tech-enabled refrigerators are being put within regions designated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA).

Food apartheid and food desert communities are places where the refrigerator, with up to 41 free food and drink options, is located. These communities have less than a half-mile access to fresh food and healthy options, such as chocolate oat milk, hibiscus teas, health-conscious burritos, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chipotle egg, cheese sandwiches, and overnight oats with vegan, lactose-free, and gluten-free options.

The technology in Carter’s refrigerator collects data for waste reduction and restocking while also tracking user transactions and trends.

She told the Baltimore Times, “The fridge is stocked with healthy options from local operators. Each week, the fridge is curated based on user transitions and weekly metrics. There is no maximum or limit for food that people can take. Also, our fridges are de-surveilled, meaning we do not monitor the identity of the person taking the food, just the food taken in order to curate the fridge.”

In all, seven refrigerators—one at the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—have been installed in New Jersey’s hospitals and schools.

Carter recently introduced the Sankofa Youth Incubator Program, an educational component of the Ujamaa Cafe at the schools, to give young food entrepreneurs guidance, assistance, and mentorship along with front-end product placement, per AfroTech.

She told the outlet, “For the kids that are interested, if they have a food product that they want to take from ideation…they can enroll in our nine-month curriculum. We are going to help them sell in a store, but also become part of our Ujamaa Cafe entrepreneur network and include them in our fridges.”

The Newark School of Data Science and Information Technology, which is home to one of the refrigerators, is reportedly planning to introduce a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum.

Through this curriculum, students will be able to acquire knowledge about the modeling and back-end predictive forecasting that go into replenishing the smart fridge.

Dollita Okine

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