LHS student participates in World Food Prize competition. 

November 2, 2020

LHS student participates in World Food Prize competition. 

By Kate Krieger-Watkins, staff writer

Oriole News is a presentation of Ludington Area School District in partnership with Mason County Press.

LUDINGTON – When COVID-19 forced area schools into distance learning, current Ludington High School junior Alana Calhoun, then a sophomore, didn’t let that stop her from pursuing a project she had started and felt very strongly about.

“I heard about this program from Mrs. (Jennifer) Rowe in my advanced food science class right before the pandemic hit,” Calhoun, the daughter of Greg and Sarah Calhoun of Victory Township said. “I was immediately excited. For a while, I was trying to figure out how I can help people, not only in my community, but in the future and perhaps on a global level, partly because I love to travel. If I am being honest, I did this project because I want to travel and help people, not that I had any interest or knowledge in the importance of agriculture or food insecurity, however that changed.”

Calhoun was working on a project for the Michigan Youth Institute through the World Food Prize, which is an international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.

The focus of Calhoun’s project was looking at the country of Tuvalu’s water and waste management issues. Tuvalu is a very small island country located between Australia and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

“My task for this program was to write a paper about a country and a current problem that related to food insecurity,” Calhoun said. “When COVID hit, Mrs. Rowe made it an optional assignment. However I thought it was essential. What a great opportunity. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get all the opportunities I have through this program. I researched my topic on the water and sanitation issues of Tuvalu due to inadequate waste management systems, which is leading to food insecurity in the country. Tuvalu’s land mass is just about twice the size of LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), so it’s super small.”

Tuvalu is suffering from a lot of changes that, with some assistance, could be manageable to fix, which spoke to Calhoun when choosing a country to research.

“Right now, they (Tuvalu’s people) are facing issues from climate change including rising sea levels and worsened natural disasters,” Calhoun said. “Instead of focusing on something that was mostly out of the Tuvaluans’ hands, I focused on what could help them with what they have and in those worsened conditions. They have poor waste management on the island including pit toilets, bottomless septic tanks, and poor dry well systems. These have caused the contamination of drinking water, and of the lagoons, which has caused algal blooms. This has created more food insecurity, malnutrition, and dependence on their neighbor Fiji, which shouldn’t be necessary due to the resources the island is surrounded by.”

As she dug deeper into the project, Calhoun developed her ideas and how to implement them into a working system of changes.

“My solutions were: 1. New technology including a plastic septic tank (less expensive than concrete and leaves room financially for a draining field, and is less susceptible to natural disasters and is less likely to crack) and composting toilets (This eliminated the creation of sewage, the compost can then be used for fertilizer, and it is also inside so won’t be impacted by natural disaster, and no matter what system a lower price than any septic tank); 2. Higher governmental intervention. Having legislation requires the replacement of the current waste systems to these newer technologies; 3. An element of education. Whether that be with professionals teaching at schools, installation demos, or workshops at a church, elements of education need to be in place. If not, the technology could be used poorly, and the same problems will occur.”

Getting the opportunity to present her project was very exciting for Calhoun, but because of COVID-19, she experienced this portion of the competition a bit differently that applicants in the year’s past.

“Once you submit a paper, all participants then get to (usually) go to Michigan State University for a conference where they present their paper and have a day where there are discussions and they listen to key notes,” she said. “This year it was all virtual via Zoom. Going into the Michigan Youth Institute I was so nervous. I couldn’t sleep. That day when I presented my paper, and heard everyone else’s in my groups, and heard the webinars, my interest in food insecurity peeked.”

After the state and nation-wide groups and panels, the World Food Prize picks participants to represent their area on a global scale at the Global Youth Institute. Normally held in Iowa,this year it was held virtually. Remembering the moment when she heard the results, Calhoun said that she had just arrived home from eating fast food and her mother, Sarah, approached her, acting a bit odd.

“My mom sat me down and said, ‘We need to talk,’” Calhoun said. “To most kids, this would scare them. However, I knew something was up because I could tell she was in her acting degree mode. She told me, and I literally bounced off walls. I was screaming and jumping and dancing. It was such a good feeling, it was unreal. Mrs. Rowe helped me throughout this journey so much, everywhere from reading my paper and giving me suggestions, to helping me find resources, to being there for me emotionally. However, I want to note that she has helped me outside of this project and has helped so many other kids in so many other days. She is a true inspiration. She cares so genuinely so much about her job, the kids, and the community she serves, yet is so humble. I wouldn’t have gotten these opportunities if it wasn’t for her endless want to help others for their own good.”

Chosen out of 10,000 applicants, Calhoun was one of 214 chosen to present at the global level and to learn and present ideas next to other very passionate individuals from around the world.

“I got to present in front of other delegates from around the world, and hear from amazing scientists, farmers, leaders, and activists,” she said. “The first week I got access to the Borlaug dialogue, which is about the topic of ‘global food security’ organized by The World Food Prize Foundation. I also got to present my paper in front of other delegates in a round table group and get expert feedback and feedback from the other delegates. It was so refreshing being in a ‘room’ with so many people who have a passion and understand the importance of food insecurity.”

Even though COVID-19 hit and forced Calhoun to continue to work on her project at home, she feels that it might have happened for a reason, making her become more passionate about a topic that otherwise might have been overlooked more if she would have been in a traditional classroom setting.

“I think COVID was a blessing in disguise because of course, I would have loved to go to Iowa and meet other delegates and leaders in person, however all the resources I gained and knowledge by listening and interacting with these amazing people over Zoom and Whova, their conference platform, was incomparable,” she said. “The next week, I received access to the Iowa Hunger Summit and some Global Youth Institute activities. I learned a lot about biodiversity and equality and how it relates to food insecurity. This experience has truly opened my eyes to so much, that I think all eyes should see. I really believe there needs to be more of an initiative to teach about these topics in school, for if they are not addressed there will be so many consequences.”

Definitely a life-changing and mind-opening experience, Calhoun said all people should learn more about issues pertaining to food insecurity because they are a lot more widespread than most people even know about.

“We have so many educational opportunities, yet this topic is rarely talked about,” she said. “We need to implement change. I never knew how dynamic food insecurity is and how every food system has so many intricate parts and key components and how it impacts everyone’s life, until two weeks ago. It is truly underrated.”

With all that she has learned over the last year, Calhoun said she really believes that without other people becoming educated and more involved these problems will just continue. It is up to many to make large changes, but it only takes one voice to spark the motivation to make those changes, she said.

“I think we need to get everyone involved,” she said. “We can’t just count on those at the U.N. Food Systems Summit. We can’t just count on scientists. We can’t just count on farmers. We need to count on everyone and make sure the quietest voice is heard. These days, especially here in the U.S, the world has been full of arguments, hatred, division, and so much more. Nothing is going to get done with this contradiction. No one will make any decisions, and if they do, others will be outraged. We need to collaborate, not focus on contradictions. Listen to opposing view ideas, especially about food insecurity, hear them out. However, this can’t just be ‘listening,’ it needs to be actual listening. Hearing them out, analyzing data without bias as much as possible, then redirect your own opinions, or let them be. We need to know we are all human, one person is not better or more significant than another, we are equals. So many don’t think they are important, we need people to understand that they are, that they have a purpose, that they are cared about.”

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