"These are the kids who can make a difference," said Deb Buttleman Malcolm, who oversees Davenport Central High School's student-run newspaper and yearbook and has helped guide Zelsdorf's and Held's projects.
Held was awarded one of nine Youth Institute internships last year and worked this past summer in Peru, while Zelsdorf reported on food-security issues during a journalism exchange in Brazil last year. On October 20 at the World Food Prize annual conference in Des Moines, Held discussed his internship, and Zelsdorf presented a paper describing the reforms made in food distribution by Mexico President Vincente Fox.
The World Food Prize was established in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, who is credited with saving millions of lives with research on and advocacy of high-yield agriculture. Davenport Central has participated in the Youth Institute since its creation in 1994. Buttleman Malcolm said she picks the students based on their interest in science and their journalistic skills.
Held and Zelsdorf show a remarkable consciousness and understanding of food-security issues, both because they're still in high school and because - unlike many participants in the Youth Institute - they're from a relatively urban area.
"It's one of the largest problems in the world today," Held said of hunger. Yet before he got involved in the World Food Prize, he knew little about the problem or the issues related to it.
Zelsdorf said that in this country, ignorance about food issues is not surprising, because hunger isn't a problem in the United States. And most urban dwellers pay little attention to agricultural issues because of the prevalence of processed food.
"Most of the corn we eat comes from a can," he said. "You never really hear anything about world hunger."
It is estimated that more than a billion people go hungry each day, most of them in developing countries. The World Food Prize has identified a number of obstacles to its goal of "food for all," ranging from obvious factors such as bad climate, soil erosion, and plant disease to those that are functions of cultures and governments, such as political barriers and no access to capital for farmers.
And recent events have made the term "food security" even more appropriate. Much of the three-day World Food Prize conference last month was devoted to subjects such as the food terrorism, "agroterrorism," and bioterrorism. The fear in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax scare is that the world's food supply could be jeopardized at many points - in the fields or at the processing stage. In other words, solving world hunger is not just a matter of producing enough food; that food must be safe, and it must get to the people who need it.
Zelsdorf and Held noted that distribution is a major concern. Frequently, developing countries lack the transportation infrastructure to deliver food to their citizens, and food spoils as a result.
Politics also intrude. In his paper on Mexico's Fox, Zelsdorf noted that the old-guard political structure in that country has resisted changes to make food distribution more efficient.
Hunger can also be a political weapon. United Nations sanctions on Iraq, for example, have resulted in widespread hunger in that country. Creating that kind of privation could easily contribute to political unrest, perhaps ultimately leading to a revolution.
And not many people realize that donating food or money to other countries can actually be damaging. It might seem that there would be no downside to the act of donating surplus food to a country where hunger is rampant. But such a gift might well do more harm than good.
"You're wrecking their markets," Held said. "Their economies are based on agriculture." In other words, benevolently boosting a country's food supply will depress prices, and make it even more difficult for a country's farmers to earn a living.
In other cases, farmers are producing plenty of food but can't sell it. In Peru, most farmers grow potatoes because the highland climate and soil are perfect for them. The problem is that there's no market for them. So why do they continue to grow a product for which there's so little demand? "Traditions passed down from father to son," Held said. "They just know how to grow potatoes."
During his internship, Held worked a job that might seem many teenagers' dream: He toiled in a lab that was studying potato chips - more than 300 varieties made using Peru potatoes. The idea was to figure out whether the crop could be used in new ways to increase demand and, as a result, farmer income. (That's not dissimilar to efforts in the Midwestern United States to develop "value added" uses for corn and soybeans - new products that could create new markets for farmers.)
Held said that he's learned that there's no silver-bullet solution to hunger. "It's not all about the top-level projects," he said. "It's about little projects helping out in individual cases."
Both Held and Zelsdorf are interested in becoming professional journalists, and while they don't plan to go into agriculture or food reporting, they said their experience with the World Food Prize has been valuable. They'll spread their awareness among their peers, and through that process possibly make a difference. "I'd like to let people know about the problem and what they can do," Held said.