Francine Barchett MPS ’21 Ph.D. ’24, far right, and Joseph Tornabene, middle, a student at Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries Early College High School, inspect an aquaponic system at the Kenneth Post Laboratory greenhouses.

NY high schoolers tackle food security issues at Cornell event

Forty-six high school students from 17 high schools across New York state came to the Cornell campus March 25 for discussions around innovative solutions to food security and climate change challenges.

The event was hosted by the New York Youth Institute (NYYI), a World Food Prize program within the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

With 7.9 billion people alive today and demographic trends rising fast, the world population is expected to grow more crowded in the generations ahead, making food security a challenge.

“Youth today are going to be grappling with urgent challenges about food security, and they are energized to confront these issues now,” said Polly Endreny Holmberg, the NYYI state coordinator in the Department of Global Development. “The New York Youth Institute challenges students to consider big issues and potential solutions. We aren’t only curious about what impactful technologies exist to address issues like hunger, but how those technologies can be implemented.”

Lazim Jarif, a senior at Ithaca High School, inspects a plant grown in a hydroponic system at the Kenneth Post Laboratory greenhouses on campus.

The students gave three-minute, TED-style presentations on solutions to international food security, climate change and public health challenges while being reviewed by their peers and panels of Cornell experts.

The presentations – including “Protecting the Land and Promoting Sustainable Agricultural Practices in Panama;” “Using Sanitation Techniques to Improve Food Security in Madagascar;” and “Accessing Clean Drinking Water and Improving Human Health in Bangladesh” – focused on issues across the globe, as well as issues such as food insecurity in New York City.

During the event dozens of faculty, staff, Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows and graduate students volunteered to engage with the student groups and provide feedback on the proposed solutions.

“We as kids will be the ones to make global change happen,” said Kira Davenport, a student from Clean Technologies and Sustainable Industries Early College High School. “Having opportunities like the New York Youth Institute gets the ball rolling for us to learn, think of creative ideas, and start to make things happen.”

Students heard presentations from experts including Ben Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS; Maricelis Acevedo, research professor in Global Development; Humphrey Fellows Hazell Flores and Annette Nantumbwe; and Richard Ball, commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“With knowledge and a passion for science, you can make a great impact on global agriculture,” Acevedo said.

To gain exposure to university projects and academic life, the high school students took tours of agricultural projects on campus. Neil Mattson, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, demonstrated research into growing plants without soil in a hydroponic lab; Eugene Won, senior research associate in animal science, showed aquaponic systems; the Cornell University Insect Collection exhibited some of its more than 7 million insects specimens; and the student-operated farm Dilmun Hill discussed their work and partnerships with Anabel’s, the student-operated grocery store.

“These opportunities to speak with a thought leader or ponder an inspiring project for just a few moments can give young students the will and determination to set out on an incredible adventure and help their community or world in ways no one could have expected,” Holmberg said.

For William Fenton, a student at John Jay High School in Brooklyn, the experience was profound. “I have always known I want to make my contributions to the world through math and science. The need for food security for humankind really resonated with me,” he said. “I loved researching, presenting and hearing about issues currently affecting food sources around our globe.”

Jackson Hart, M.P.S. ’22, is the graduate assistant for Cornell’s Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program.