Food Systems Projects Between Schools and Nonprofits – IISE SDD Webinar

The following webinar was hosted by the IISE Sustainable Development Division, as part of their mission to help align Industrial and Systems Engineers with organizations working on the UN Sustainable Development goals. Watch the video, and read the summary article below.

  • Jason Grimm, Deputy Director with Iowa Valley Resource and Conservation Development (IVRC&D)
  • Anuj Mittal, Senior Instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology
  • Dave Adolfson, Senior Instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology
  • Moderator: Brion Hurley, IISE Sustainable Development Division President

IVRC&D is a nonprofit organization that facilitates partner collaboration, solve problems at a system level, and leverage resources around community food systems in the State of Iowa.

One problem identified by Jason and his team was the need to reduce transportation costs when distributing local food from across the state of Iowa. They were looking to better coordinate truck pickups and deliveries to save time and money for food hubs across the state, while increasing access to new markets. Caroline Krejci and her students at Iowa State University including Anuj Mittal, developed an inventory tracking software to better analyze local food sales and transportation routes for food hubs in Iowa.

Another project Jason and Anuj worked on was with Viva Farms (near Seattle, Washington), who helps aggregate food production from incubators into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), institutions, businesses and restaurants. The project helped automate the creation of branded labels for all the different farms with much less time and effort, while other tools helped reduce data entry errors.

A third project with Farmers Market Riceville in Iowa led to the development of a virtual marketplace to help collect online orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tool can also collect important data to assist managers with planning and coordination of the farmers market. The development team also includes Allen Canzonieri, a senior in the Industrial Engineering Technology program at Dunwoody College of Technology. Part of the project required the creation of problem statement and project benefits to support the grant writing process. This provided good experience for the student to learn ways to communicate to new audiences, which is important for those interested in working on community related projects. This will likely become a skill that will be needed by engineers working in the nonprofit world.

Jason and Anuj are also working on several other projects on developing technology related tools to improve local food supply chain efficiencies through lean practices. Example includes, developing an inventory tracking and database management system for farmers to comply with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, an open source database for Iowa farmers to sell food across the state, and an inventory management system to allow farmers sell prepared meal kits. The tools are either setup to be open source for other communities to use or are low cost. They have partnered with various local food organizations across the country and have been able to secure funding for these projects from agencies such as U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa Department of Agriculture, that also allowed to pay students’ stipends.

Dave Adolfson and Anuj Mittal teach in the School of Engineering at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which offers a degree in Industrial Engineering Technology, along with other 4-year and 2-year degree programs. Anuj has continued to foster the student-non-profit’s relationship since joining Dunwoody, based on his prior work at Iowa State University and IVRC&D.

One student capstone project was with Second Harvest Heartland in the fall 2019 semester. After some discussion to translate jargon between engineers and nonprofits (almost a year in development), students spent about half of their time understanding how the process worked, and then the rest of the semester was spent working on the improvements.

Second Harvest was looking to better understand how to optimize the food pantry supply and demand across their network, based on current capacities. However, all the data was spread across three different geographical units. The students helped standardize and combine the data together to give visibility to the organization to get the right food in the right place by reducing waste.

Not all work was directly tied to outcomes or impact to the nonprofit. Some of the work provided was instrumental in providing data and analysis that fed into the grant writing process, which helped increase the chance of grant approval for the nonprofit.

Adolfson also recommended that staff, faculty and university leadership help make connections with local nonprofits, as they are well connected in the community.

Summary

  • Student capstone projects and research work provide excellent real-world experience for the students, and provide valuable support to non-profits.
  • Students can provide software development and data collection and analysis support to nonprofits at a little to no cost due to the time and resources they have access to and the learning they will gain from the experience.
  • Students interested in nonprofit work should also need to develop skills in writing grants and problem statements, and communicating to funders and donors in non-technical terms to be most effective.
  • Partnerships between schools and nonprofits take time to develop in order to translate the language of engineers into the language of nonprofits, and to develop trust in order to be able for the nonprofit to commit their limited time and resources to the effort.
  • Many nonprofits may not be familiar with the skill set that engineers can provide, and therefore do not know how to seek assistance with current challenges in their organization.
  • Professors and instructors should seek help from other faculty, staff and school leadership (president, provost, board of trustees) to help make connections in the community to establish relationships with nonprofits for students seeking project work.

 
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