Fifty Bryan High School juniors sat down with local volunteers Thursday to take on a complex issue that's troubled Omaha and communities worldwide.
The issue revolved around food and nutrition, and teams could pick one of four challenges aimed at making sure people have both, by doing such things as reducing food waste and encouraging local food production.
The goal of their day of brainstorming was to propose real-world solutions to food challenges.
Thursday's “innovation day” at the Omaha Public Schools high school in Bellevue served as the national kickoff for the Howard G. Buffett Foundation's 40 Chances Challenges program. The program posed the problems and gave the students a start on entries for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship's 2013 World Series of Innovation, which the foundation is sponsoring.
Through the contest, they'll have a chance to compete for cash — up to $10,000 — and other prizes.
Howard W. Buffett, the foundation's executive director, told the students they had the opportunity “to solve some serious problems that really exist right here in Omaha” and find solutions “that can be scaled up to a larger audience.”
The 40 Chances Challenges program is being launched in conjunction with the October publication of “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World,” which Howard G. Buffett co-wrote with Howard W. Buffett. The book shares approaches for combating hunger and poverty.
Howard W. Buffett, grandson of investor Warren Buffett and son of philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, told the students that his father, through farming and his travels, realized that people have a limited number of productive years to make an impact on the world.
The students who took part in Thursday's event are part of Bryan's Urban Agriculture and Natural Resources Career Academy. It opened last year with a three-year grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
The program has 120 students in 10th and 11th grades who take classes, including English and history, with an agricultural focus. They also participate in FFA, just as Howard W. Buffett did when he was in high school.
Rick Painter, a counselor at the school, said Bryan initially hoped to sign up 30 students. Instead, it is adding about 60 a year. One in three jobs in Nebraska has some connection with agriculture, he said, and students recognize that.
“We thought it was going to be a hard sell going into an urban school,” he said. “But there was way more interest than we anticipated.”
Reyna Quintana said she's overcome her shyness by studying with a smaller group of students in the ag academy and participating in FFA speaking events. She even won a blue ribbon.
“After that, I knew I could do things beyond,” she said.
She has realized that she can put her science skills to work in the food industry, coming up with food flavorings.
Austin Martinez, who wants to pursue degrees in horticulture and nursing, said the innovation day provided him with valuable experience. He considers Howard W. Buffett a role model.
“I like how he explains his ideas and how he wants to change things around the world.”
The students teamed with 20 volunteers from Farm Credit Services of America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Reserve and the Nebraska Department of Education.
Staff from the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship led exercises meant to teach the basics of innovation and entrepreneurship. In one, teams crafted products from paper cups, cotton swabs and a few other items and figured out how to market them.
Then it was time for the teams to pick a challenge.
Ethan Lugo explained why his team chose to focus on reducing the vast quantities of food wasted in the United States each year. “Could you imagine how many kids and homeless people (we could feed) with all this food?” he said.
Reducing waste also would lessen the load on landfills and trim the amount farmers need to produce, he said.
The teaching network hopes to net 1,500 submissions for the innovation competition. Teams are made up of two to five people.
A panel will choose the top finalists. The finalist that receives the most votes through the organization's online voting during Global Entrepreneurship Week, Nov. 18 to 24, will win the $10,000 grand prize. The team's school will receive $1,500. Other prizes also are available.
Howard W. Buffett said he was “blown away” by the effort and creativity he was seeing.
“I have amazing hopes for these students,” he said.