Necessity is indeed the mother of all invention. It’s one thing, however, to dream up a genius burst of innovation; it’s quite another to turn that into a tangible solution, which not only works but also sells. The daunting task of it is enough to make most would-be entrepreneurs tuck the thought away again and never share it with anyone. In the recent case of nearly 100 college students across 21 different campuses, however, they each proved how far a person can go simply by trying. What they were able to achieve is beyond inspiring.
A Foundation’s nutrition-based challenge
Newman’s Own Foundation, in partnership with Net Impact, designed a program to inspire students to initiate a nutrition-based project, either on campus or in the surrounding community. Each team was then given modest funding out of a $100K grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation, and a mentor was assigned to provide expert guidance throughout the spring semester.
The teams were based everywhere, from New York to Minnesota to California, all the way down to the Virgin Islands. The range of issues they addressed was equally diverse, as were the methods they relied upon to solve them.
Feeding the Homeless: There’s an App for That
Transfernation from New York University, developed an app to allow organizers of large events, such as corporate luncheons and conferences, to send out push notifications when they have leftover food. Transfernation volunteers armed with smart phones then intercept the messages and get the surplus where it needs to go. To date, the team has rescued 15,000 pounds of food before it’s gone to the dumpster.
“Personally, I find it extremely rewarding to see the quality of food we’re able to provide to the shelter system, which is the same caliber as corporate America,” said co-founder Samir Goel. “I’m also grateful for all the incredible people we’ve been able to meet along the way, from our partner organizations to volunteers to people who rely on the shelters we work with.”
Optimizing Food Distribution, One Community at a Time
FreshSpire out of North Carolina also developed new technology to be able to simultaneously solve the issues of food waste and scarcity. The app alerts users when local grocery stores are marking down perishables, such as meat and bread, allowing low-income families to buy groceries that might normally be outside their budget.
“The most rewarding part of this project has definitely been being a part of a group of people who are passionate about the same global problems,” said co-founder and East Carolina University student Mona Amin.
Bringing Millennials and Industry Together
Taking a less virtual approach, four students from the University of Berkeley aimed to get millennials involved in innovating the food industry with their hands-on organization, FoodInno. The group offers student-run classes to teach both practical knowledge, such as how-to sessions on all things fermented, as well as give a wider understanding of the food industry, from best labor practices to responsible labeling. Off-campus, FoodInno’s hackathons have also been successful. Oakland-based House Kombucha hosted one such event, drawing more than 60 participants. Students broke into six teams to create innovative kombucha products and brainstorm the company’s future marketing model. In the end, the winning product focused on bringing kombucha back to its roots in East Asia, and it drove home a message of empowerment, health and the sustainable-minded localizing of business. For all their hard work, the first place winners were rewarded with a tour of House Kombucha’s operation, plus ongoing mentorship for their food innovation ideas.
The Future of Food Innovation
It’s worth noting that back in January, when the 25 final teams were chosen from a larger pool to participate in the semester-long Newman’s Own Foundation Challenge, many of them (the above examples included) had projects already in progress. Yet when the participants took a final survey recently to rate their experience, they were overwhelmingly positive, with 96 percent reporting that the Challenge was helpful in launching or accelerating their work.
“If [these students] can accomplish this level of progress even before graduation,” said Liz Maw, CEO of Net Impact, “imagine what they’re going to do as they continue their careers.”
To learn more about the teams that participated in the Newman’s Own Foundation Challenge, visit Net Impact’s website.
Margaret Goerig is a social media fellow at the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Net Impact. Net Impact is a nonprofit that supports a new generation to work within and beyond business for a sustainable future.