Michigan Youth Institute: Building young food leaders

The annual program held at Michigan State University helps students develop critical thinking skills and have meaningful conversation about global food security issues.

There’s no minimum age for making a difference.

The Michigan Youth Institute, a yearly event held at Michigan State University (MSU), encourages students in grades 8–12 to research and share solutions to global food security issues, giving them the skills and confidence so that they can influence resolutions for such problems.

“The idea of it is to engage Michigan youth as active global citizens in understanding and solving critical global challenges, especially as they relate to food security, and to provide opportunities for young people to explore academic and career pathways to end global hunger, poverty and other interrelated challenges,” said Brian Wibby, MSU Extension educator and co-director of the Michigan Youth Institute.

This year’s Michigan Youth Institute took place on May 10. A total of 54 students from around the state participated in the event, which, for the first time, was split between two sites: MSU’s main campus in East Lansing and the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham. Students, MSU experts and facilitators at the two sites communicated via video conference. The MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, MSU International Studies and Programs, MSU Extension, Michigan 4-H and Michigan FFA sponsored the event.

Participants in the Michigan Youth Institute are asked to select a food security issue and developing country from a predetermined list. The students write an essay about how their chosen issue affects citizens in that country. They discuss their essays in roundtable format, where they engage in conversation designed to help them think deeper about their topic.WorldFoodPrize3x2

“Everyone had similar interests and great ideas to help solve global scale issues," said Grace Schmidt, a Livingston County 4-H'er who just finished her senior year of high school. "It didn’t matter what organization you represented, what grade you were in or what issue you wrote about, everyone was there to network and learn from each other."

The Michigan Youth Institute is part of the World Food Prize’s Global Youth Institute, a three-day summit that occurs every October in Des Moines, Iowa. Selected students from the Michigan Youth Institute are chosen as delegates for the Global Youth Institute based on essay scores given by the World Food Prize board of reviewers, feedback from MSU experts during the event and their level of interest.

“We do have a more formalized process, but I would say overall what we’re looking for is the students that come across as the most interested and engaged in food security issues,” said Wibby. “We take a look at the feedback that we get from the experts on the presentations and how the youth engage in the dialogue with other students during the program.”

Although it’s an honor and achievement to represent Michigan at the Global Youth Institute, the goal isn’t to foster competition — it’s to teach the value of meaningful, purpose-driven conversation.

“What we hope that they get out of the experience is some communication, critical thinking, and learning from other people, but in the end, being able to have a conversation with other people around topics that are important, and really delving into how can they make a difference in this whole picture of global food,” said Betty Jo Krosnicki, an MSU Extension educator who co-directed the 2018 event along with Wibby.

“World Food Prize challenged me to learn about a completely new subject, analyze it, and create or endorse ideas to help solve it,” said Schmidt. “In this sense, I learned how to tackle something very complicated and break it down into a workable subject. It also taught me to not be afraid to have an opinion on something as large scale as global hunger.” OrganicFarm3x2

In addition to roundtables where the students discussed their essays, the Michigan Youth Institute also featured immersion experiences at MSU’s Beal Botanical Garden, the Student Organic Farm, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Hall of World Cultures at the MSU Museum

Eric Dobbrastine, MSU Extension Ingham County 4-H program coordinator, chaperoned the Student Organic Farm immersion experience and served as a facilitator for the roundtable discussions. He said the Michigan Youth Institute helps further 4-H’s mission to invest in young people and help them grow to be true leaders. 

“Not a lot of high schoolers are thinking about this,” said Dobbrastine. “Just the fact that they are thinking about and actively brainstorming solutions to food issues makes them leaders.”

Wibby shared a similar sentiment.

“We can see from the youth that we have participating in the program that they really have the ability to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas to solve the problems,” he said. “When they combine that ability with the passion that a lot of young people have for making the world a better place, they’re really ideal candidates as global leaders to step into that role today and to start solving these issues.” 

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