World Food Prize puts Iowa in the international spotlight

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When Keegan Kautzky was a freshman at Iowa State, he was signed up for a study-abroad experience in Italy that was cancelled because of the September 11th attacks.

Liz Beck (L)(’74 history, MA ’77), then the head of the ISU Honors Program, told Kautzky (L)(’04 political science) at the time that if he wanted to start learning about global issues he didn’t need to travel to Europe. He just needed to intern at the World Food Prize in Des Moines.

“So that’s what I did,” Kautzky said. “I met Norm [Borlaug] and Ambassador [Kenneth] Quinn, and it changed everything and the rest of my life. And it’s fascinating because it was in my backyard that I could make a real difference and interact with world leaders and tackle these issues; it wasn’t just in traveling globally on a study-abroad. It was 30 minutes from campus and 25 miles from my hometown.”

Thus began Kautzky’s 15-year adventure with the World Food Prize and its many facets: state and global youth institutes, the Iowa Hunger Summit, the Borlaug Dialogue, and World Food Prize laureate program.

Today Kautzky is a director of national education programs along with fellow Iowa State graduate Libby Pederson Crimmings (’04 art and design). They travel “non-stop” for months every year, organizing and facilitating youth institutes in 21 states, a program that has seen exponential growth.

“Nine years ago [the youth institute program] was [only] in Iowa, with about 55 to 60 students who participated, and now we’re in 20 more states with about 10,000 students participating nationally,” Kautzky said. It’s conceivable, he said, that in the next fi ve years, the program could scale up to reach a million students in 50 states.

The World Food Prize youth institutes are culminations of year-round work by high school students across the nation. In Iowa last year, about 6,000 students were involved in school- and community-based service-learning activities, research projects, and papers, and of those students about 300 came to the day-long Iowa Youth Institute on the ISU campus in April, hosted by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Each fall, during the Borlaug Dialogue event week – which attracts leaders from all over the globe who come together to discuss the many possible solutions to solving world hunger and poverty – a three-day Global Youth Institute engages 200 high school delegates from the state youth institutes and internationally.

The students chosen for that event are not necessarily the school valedictorians, Kautzky explained. “It’s the students who are the most passionate,” he said. “They have just incredible promise; they want to work hard and make a difference in their community. A big part of what we’re trying to create through those youth institutes is a way to engage broadly all students with these issues and to identify kids that really care. There’s a
lot of energy, a lot of ideas, a lot of passion.”

“Dr. Borlaug’s idea was that we need to create a way not just to engage and educate but to identify those passionate young people and then help them see the pathways and how they can use their interests to make a real difference in the world,” Crimmings added.

In addition to the youth programs and Borlaug Dialogue, the 12-person staff of the World Food Prize Foundation also facilitates an annual Iowa Hunger Summit, an Iowa Hunger Directory, World Food Prize internships, special events, and more.

Catherine Swoboda (L)(’08 agronomy, MS ’10 crop production & physiology) has been a big part of the planning and execution of those events. From 2011 through the end of 2016, Swoboda worked first as the World Food Prize director of Iowa and Midwest education programs and most recently as director of planning for the Borlaug Dialogue. So she knows what it takes for a small staff to pull off local, international, and international events – sometimes simultaneously.

“This is a small staff that works yearround to plan those events. And when I reflect on what that’s like, I guess the thing that really comes to my mind is the tremendous sense of mission here,” she said. “It’s really amazing what you can accomplish with a small team when they’re devoted to the mission.”

Swoboda, now a lecturer in ISU’s Department of Global Resource Systems, was born and raised in Des Moines. She became involved with the World Food Prize in high school.

“It was really stunning to be a part of the World Food Prize staff ,” she said, “and it really wasn’t until then that I had an appreciation of the regard with which such leaders from all over the world hold our state, and the respect and admiration that they have for our state’s legacy in terms of agriculture and humanitarianism.”


This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.

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