Quick, pitch an outline for a proposed solution to this problem: What accessible, impactful, and scalable solutions can post-secondary schools implement to improve food security for students on campus?
It’s a big question, but for the 2023 Experience Ventures National Hackathon student participants, “big” doesn’t mean “impossible.”
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations defines food security as existing when “people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and enable an active and healthy life.”
Food security is connected to a lot more than just our stomachs. Food insecurity leads to short- and long-term health problems and chronic health conditions, and impacts local and international economies. Climate change continues to disrupt agriculture that hurts farmers and affects food prices around the world.
This was the challenge presented to the 2023 Experience Ventures National Hackathon student participants. Experience Ventures, powered by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary, enables post-secondary students to make an impact alongside real-world innovators through entrepreneurial thinking placements.
The Experience Ventures National Hackathon kicked off on January 26. Students from 12 schools across Canada were separated into teams and pitched the same problem you read above. They would have two weeks to devise a solution, create a video pitch no longer than five minutes, and present that pitch to a panel of judges.
Participating students were granted a $325 honorarium through Experience Ventures in recognition of their participation in the challenge. The Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking awarded $5,000 in cash prizes: $1,000 for third place, $1,500 for second place, and $2,500 for first place.
The student teams weren’t just tossed into the deep end and expected to figure it out. The kick-off event on January 26 introduced two keynote speakers: Morgan Rosenberg, healthtech entrepreneur, data science consultant, and qualifying MD, and Naomi Schettini, founder of Jabali.dao.
Rosenberg’s keynote revolved around a valuable tool for problem-solving: design thinking.
Design thinking is iterative and non-linear — problems this complex aren’t ever really “solved”; they evolve based on empathy for the user, research, prototyping, and deployment. For Rosenberg, empathy is the key to effective design thinking.
“Get as close as you can to the people you’re trying to help,” he told Hackathon participants. “It will dramatically improve your ability to notice problems and opportunities to do better.”
This isn’t theoretical for Rosenberg — he won the Hacking Health hackathon and created the Resili app to address mental health challenges for family caregivers. Rosenberg had zero experience in healthcare or technology prior to this win. In his own words, he was “inexperienced and over his head.”
“But, as long as you come into this with an open mind, you can do something amazing.”
Naomi Schettini’s passion is understanding different life ways from as many different perspectives as possible. During her keynote speech at the Experience Ventures National Hackathon, she expressed her admiration for traveling thinkers like Mariana van Zeller and Anthony Bourdain, who combed the globe for new experiences and genuine connections.
Naomi studied journalism but quickly grew cynical of the medium. She never lost her passion for storytelling — but what story to tell? A trip to Ghana was the answer.
“It made me completely question food,” she said. “I realized our food systems are really not resilient.”
She went back to school and graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Global Resource Systems program. She gained hands-on experience with sustainable food systems in Ethiopia and Cuba and became an advocate for regenerative agriculture.
“My goal is to co-create a community of regeneration-focused generalists that will build the infrastructural tools to bring value to farmers and improve their livelihoods.”
To inspire the students ahead of the hackathon, Schettini asked them what their relationship was to food and what they thought of the food system. She introduced the four pillars of food insecurity:
When in Ethiopia, she worked on a woman’s farm. Her supervisor needed support for promoting sweet potato cultivation, which are easily propagated, in rural areas of Tigray. The people in the village liked them but had never had them before and didn’t know how to prepare them. “Utilization,” she explained, “is about education.”
As the kick-off came to a close, and the students prepared to develop innovative solutions, Schettini left them with this:
“Remain curious about your food and always wonder, ‘How did this end up on my plate?’”
It’s a big question, but for the Experience Ventures National Hackathon participants, “big” doesn’t mean “impossible.”