By Amber Friedrichsen
Food insecurity is a global concern, but it can also strike close to home. The complexity of this issue cannot be solved with a single solution — it must be approached from multiple angles.
Students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences teamed up with students from various other departments at Iowa State University to compete in Iowa State’s first-ever Food Insecurity Challenge. This event, hosted by CALS, the Ivy College of Business and the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, was designed to encourage participants to think critically about combatting food insecurity.
The competition kicked off with a Hunger Banquet on Nov. 1 at the Ivy College of Business Kingland Hub. Upon arriving, students drew cards that randomly assigned them as low-, middle- or high-class individuals to determine the meal they would receive. This activity exemplified how one’s income can dictate the amount of food and type of food they can afford.
“When you go to a banquet expecting to sit at a table and have a nice dinner, but instead get served a cup of rice and have to sit on the floor, it immediately hits you what it feels like to be hungry,” said Carmen Bain, CALS associate dean for academic innovation. “Having this direct experience was meant to leave that impact on participants.”
During their meal, students heard from A.G. Kawamura with Western Growers, an organization that represents produce farmers in states like California, Arizona and New Mexico. Kawamura emphasized that food insecurity is not only about the quantity of food available, but also the nutritional quality of food. He also provided students a number of focus areas to consider for the challenge, such as improving food distribution and minimizing food waste.
After the keynote, students split into groups of up to six people and put their heads together to pinpoint a specific food insecurity problem and find a way to address it. Over the next two weeks, the teams were responsible for creating a presentation that would introduce their problem, define their demographic, explain their solution and provide a timeline of implementation.
“Food insecurity is a huge issue, not just across the globe, but right here in Iowa, in Ames, and even on this campus,” Bain said. “The goal of the Food Insecurity Challenge was to get students to think creatively about how we can tackle these issues in different ways.”
One criterion of the challenge was to attend a virtual mentoring session with business professionals. These personnel offered participants insight about the time, labor and financial resources required to carry out their ideas. They also gave groups advice about articulating their ideas to stakeholders.
On Nov. 15, 27 teams gathered at the Student Innovation Center to pitch their projects. Each group was assigned to one of three competition rooms where they had four minutes to present. Two hours later, everyone came together for the awards ceremony in the Student Innovation Center auditorium.
Michelle Book, president of Food Bank of Iowa, opened the awards ceremony with remarks about food insecurity in Iowa and initiatives that aim to minimize it, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the BackPack Program. To follow, each preliminary judge announced the winning team from their respective competition room, as well as nine total teams that received honorable mention.
The three finalist teams proceeded to present for a second time that evening to the entire audience, as well as to the three finalist judges: Book, Daniel J. Robison, holder of the Dean’s Endowed Chair in CALS, and Scott Johnson, associate dean for research and academic personnel in the Ivy College of Business. The cash prizes at stake were $5,000 for first place, $2,500 for second place and $1,500 for third place.
The grand prize went to the team of Jessica Nelson, graduate student in soil science, Shairvi Sardana, freshman in business analytics, Ronnit Nandu, freshman in chemical engineering, and Jason Nelson, who participated as a community member. Their project, Lettuce Eat Together, entails growing vegetables in hydroponic systems in community greenhouses and allowing customers to “buy a salad, give a salad.” This model would be implemented regionally throughout the state, and donated produce would be allocated to people through multiple distribution channels.
“Every weekend, food insecure students would be sent home with a grocery bag to ensure they have access to food while they are not in school,” Jessica Nelson said. “Also on weekends, the hydroponic centers would host volunteer harvest days so community members can help harvest food for their neighbors.”
Payten Watson, senior in food science, was part of the second place team that aimed to alleviate food insecurity on campus with high-tunnel farming. Her teammates were Amarjargal Mendee, graduate student in higher education, and Sarah Mattingly, senior in food science.
The trio proposed to scale Good Earth Student Farm, a student organization at the Iowa State Horticulture Research Farm where members volunteer to grow produce for the Students Helping Our Peers (SHOP) food pantry and for themselves.
“We beta-tested this solution this year from May to September. It was successful and we want to do more,” Watson said in the final round of the challenge. “In just four months, we were able to produce 1,000 pounds of produce and donate 500 pounds of it to SHOP.”
Third place went to Rebecca Johnson, senior in agronomy, Grace Reiss, senior in nutritional science, Erin Jackson, senior in global resource systems, and Jennifer Wear, senior in agricultural business. They planned to address food deserts in Iowa in partnership with ISU Extension and Outreach to teach youth about food production.
“It was incredible to see how many students participated in the Food Insecurity Challenge — students from every college, from freshman to graduate students,” Bain said. “This challenge helped students develop their innovative skills and recognize that they have the ability to be creative problem solvers in critical areas, such as food insecurity.”