UC Students to Develop Solutions to Global Food Challenges

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By Sybil Lewis

Back to the Roots WarehouseInspired by the depth and breadth of activity across the University of California to address challenges in the global food system, Big Ideas@Berkeley, the flagship student innovation contest, has launched a new contest category: Food System Innovations.

The category responds to UC President Janet Napolitano’s UC Global Food Initiative—an effort to catalyze all 10 campuses, UC’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, various institutes and centers, and a multidisciplinary consortium of faculty, researchers, and students to address food security issues and the related challenges of nutrition and sustainability.

In her talks about the initiative, Napolitano has underscored that today a billion people, mostly in the developing world, suffer from chronic hunger or serious malnutrition, and another billion, primarily in the developed world, are obese. “Put on top of that the increasing pressure on our natural resources, land and water, and you can see the magnitude of what we have before us,” Napolitano said at the initiative’s launch in July at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. “The issue of ‘food’ is not just about what we eat. It’s about delivery systems, climate issues, population growth, policy. All of these and more come into play when you begin to think about the colliding forces that shape the world’s food future.”

The Big Ideas prize is leveraging this call to inspire students to craft creative solutions. “We hope the category will motivate undergraduate and graduate students throughout the UC system to come up with innovative ways to address the growing pressures facing our global food system,” said Phillip Denny, manager of Big Ideas and chief administrative office of the Blum Center for Developing economies, which administers the contest.

Can students develop new systems, technologies, or approaches to one of the 21st century’s thorniest problems? Denny, who has seen scores of Big Ideas contest winners go on to create high-impact ideas, says yes. He also points to the wide constellation of UC professors and researchers who have incorporated food sustainability and security into their work and whose passion for agriculture, health, nutrition, energy, water, labor, and social justice will help inspire students.

The Berkeley Food Institute (BFI), a sponsor of the Food System Innovations category and member of the UC Global Food Initiative, is working to facilitate cross-disciplinary approaches to food security, food justice, and environmental sustainability issues. “Developing effective solutions to food and agriculture challenges requires multi-dimensional expertise and innovations in many disciplines and across sectors—from production to distribution to consumption of food,” said Ann Thrupp, executive director of BFI. “Addressing these challenging issues is a great way to encourage group learning, and to address problems collaboratively. Food can be a catalyst that brings people together in universities and everywhere.”

Several projects and courses on UC campuses seek to include students in problem solving for food security. On the Berkeley campus alone, there are more than 90 academic courses related to food and agriculture and more than 150 faculty and staff that teach and conduct food-related research.

The School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, for example, offers an interdisciplinary graduate course called “Eat.Think.Design,” which encourages students to connect with nonprofits and government agencies to implement projects that address challenges in food systems. Jaspal Sandhu, a lecturer in design and innovation at the School of Public Health and a former Big Ideas team mentor, said he designed “Eat.Think.Design” to “create links between the classroom and the real-world to motivate students and ensure a worthwhile learning experience.” Past students from the course include a computer scientist who traveled to Uganda to test a post-diarrheal zinc therapy and health writer now working on special programs for the Culinary Institute of America.

Sandhu is among those who believe that because the challenges of food security affect us all, solutions require interdisciplinary collaboration. “At the moment, not enough of our students and faculty are focused on food security,” he said. “Adding this FSI category to Big Ideas will bring the brightest minds to the table.”

Winners of the Food System Innovations contest will be announced in March, and student teams will receive cash prizes of up to $10,000.
Although in past years, there was no category for food innovation or security, students have won for related Big Ideas prizes. During their last semester as undergraduates at UC Berkeley in 2009, for example, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora developed a plan to grow gourmet mushrooms from used coffee grounds. They submitted their idea for a project called “Back to the Roots” and won a $5,000 prize, which helped launch a company that is now in its fifth year of operation and boasts two products: the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm, a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food. The company’s products are currently sold in thousands of locations, including Whole Foods, Nordstrom, and The Home Depot. In 2013, Back to the Roots was named a Martha Stewart American Made Awards winner and one of Forbes 25 Most Innovative Consumer Brands.

Velez said Back to the Roots aims not only to turn waste into food, but to redefine how people view waste. “More and more, we’re starting to appreciate the ecosystem that we’re a part of,” he said. “In reality, there is no ‘waste’ in nature. We just have to take the time to figure out what is its second life.”