Zeroing In On World Hunger

A pair of Mizzou teams place third in global competition.

Screenshot of Zoom meeting with students and faculty
Professor Kiruba Krishnaswamy meets via Zoom with students in the Zero Hunger Challenge class Nov. 10, 2020.

Sustainability, food insecurity and a lack of knowledge about nutrition are issues at the heart of world hunger. MU’s Brady and Anne Deaton Institute, which empowers students to confront these problems, recently sponsored a group of Tigers in an international competition showcasing their knowledge.

Two Mizzou teams composed of six students, including two MU Honors College students, took third place in the Food Systems Dashboard Competition. The squads used a food-systems database to research real-world challenges. The winners were announced at the 2020 International Borlaug Dialogue at The World Food Prize. The global competition was open to a variety of groups, including students, professionals and industry members. Four total MU teams entered the competitions.

Students participated in the competition through the Zero Hunger Challenge course, a partnership between the Deaton Institute and the Honors College. The course explores interdisciplinary methods to solve hunger issues by combining practical knowledge of food systems with “soft skills” such as teamwork and critical thinking. The modules of the course are divided into weekly challenges that build up to tasks aligned with the Food Systems Dashboard Competition.

“I had [a series of class questions] that were building them toward this challenge, which aligns with the Food System Dashboard Competition,” says Kiruba Krishnaswamy, Zero Hunger Challenge course instructor and professor in the College of Engineering and College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “When this challenge competition came, they could apply that knowledge and answer those questions.”

Upon her arrival at MU in 2018, Krishnaswamy modeled the course after innovative, interdisciplinary courses at other institutions. After seeking input from different departments, the course formally launched in fall 2019, making this semester the course’s second cohort.

“The Honors College was really supportive,” Krishnaswamy says. “We had so many coffee meetings just to work on this course.”

Evann Twitchell, a senior journalism major from Columbia, was a member of MU’s “Haiti Hooray” team. Although she found the class by accident, she discovered her passion for sustainability while volunteering at a rural Arkansas farm where she learned about agriculture and the importance of nutrition.

Zoom screenshot from Food Systems Dashboard Competition
Members of the Haiti Hooray team present their work in the Zero Hunger Challenge class.

“Getting in the soil and being part of growing real food showed me how much of an art agriculture can be and how much beauty is involved in that,” Twitchell says.

Twitchell’s group researched various countries to figure out ways to improve existing food systems. Via the Food Systems Dashboard, they decided to focus the rest of their semester on Haiti, where anemia rates among citizens are higher than other countries. Now that the competition has ended, her team will continue to develop solutions to the problems in Haiti.

“It’s neat to see the Honors College encouraging these interdisciplinary courses because I’m a journalism major,” Twitchell said.  “We have so many programs and majors represented in class, so it’s cool to see people studying different things and using different skill sets to approach these problems.”

Junior Delanie Vinzant, a biological science and economics major and a Stamps Scholar from Maryville, Missouri, was a member of the other placing team, “The Baby Zoomers.”

The Zoomers chose to improve food insecurity in northeastern Nigeria, focusing on infant nutrition and maternal mortality rates.

“A lot of rural regions in Nigeria are poor, but this particular region has more conflict,” Vinzant says. “Right now, it’s the area the World Food Program is focusing on because the hunger there is so severe.”

Although many of the Deaton Institute’s programs are extracurricular — including the Honors partnership with the Deaton Scholars Program — the transdisciplinary nature of both the Deaton Institute programs is notable, according to Deaton Institute executive director and MU Chancellor Emeritus Brady Deaton.

“I can think of nothing, as a student, more exciting than realizing we are all part of this, and if we throw ourselves into it and do our best, we will find breakthroughs and resolve hunger in the world by 2030,” Deaton says. “We’re thrilled to see our students respond the way they have and be enthusiastic about this learning environment.”

Students including Vinzant also value the unique interdisciplinary nature of the programs.

“Working with a team virtually during the pandemic is really difficult, but I think in the long run I will value the experience,” Vinzant says. “Without this class, I probably never would have worked with a biological engineering major or a PhD student outside of my major.”

Both the Honors College and Deaton Institute emphasize the personal and societal impact that comes from hands-on learning.

“I want to applaud the expansive view of the opportunities that come to students for being in an Honors College program at the University of Missouri,” Anne Deaton says. “The whole focus of the honors program is to look holistically at students’ development and the opportunities they are offering to further that.”