4-H’ers use tech skills to explore food security

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Writer: Olivia McClure at omcclure@agcenter.lsu.edu

(03/16/21) BATON ROUGE, La. — When a group of Louisiana 4-H members wanted to learn about ways to help solve food security issues in their communities, they joined a team of fellow 4-H’ers from around the country to answer a simple — but important — question: Where’s the food?

That question became the title of an online dashboard the students developed to map out where people can find healthful foods — as well as where nutritious options are harder to come by.

The dashboard, which can be accessed at bit.ly/DashboardWhereIsTheFood, features a map with information on stores, restaurants, farmers markets and other places that offer healthful foods in low-income census tracts. People can submit locations to be added to the map through an online survey.

“Two of our mission mandates are healthy living and citizenship,” said Claire Zak, 4-H healthy living program coordinator with the LSU AgCenter. “It’s a huge accomplishment that these 4-H’ers have grasped the concept of food insecurity and how important it is to work to combat it, and that they have taken the next step to harness the power of technology to help solve this problem.”

The Louisiana 4-H’ers — Katherine Winchester, Susanna Shields, Izzy Gruner, Jane Zaruba and Vibriyogn Epuri — are working with students from North Carolina, New York and Tennessee as part of the National 4-H Geospatial Leadership Team. The team gave a presentation on the project during the 4-H National Youth Summit on Healthy Living in February.

The group in Louisiana studied data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and interviewed East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome as part of their efforts.

The project has been eye-opening, said Gruner, a 10th grader at St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge.

“I did know that there were a lot of food-scarce areas,” she said. “I guess I didn’t know how big the issue is.”

Some people who took the survey had similar reactions.

“A lot of people responded, ‘Oh, I really thought I did have an abundance of options with healthy food,’ but when they actually checked on the map, they started to realize these places don’t offer as much healthy food,” Gruner said.

The group worked with Fran Harvey, of the Baton Rouge-based Global Geospatial Institute, to put together the map. Harvey said she’s glad to see young people not only learning skills in GIS, which stands for geographic information system, but also finding real-world applications.

“Through the use of GIS, we’re able to better understand the relationships and patterns of data and make better decisions based on having that perspective revealed to us,” Harvey said. “That’s the power of GIS — it allows us to visualize data.”

She said knowledge of GIS will serve the students well in their futures no matter what career fields they enter.

“It fits so many disciplines — really, any discipline,” she said. “We’re pleased to be able to offer this skill to youth at a young age when they’re still wanting to learn. Because it fits in any field, I really like how different each student is and to see how they connect the GIS skills to the things they’re interested in.”

The 4-H team has been invited to give a presentation on the project in July at the 2021 Esri International GIS Users Conference.