Founded in 1994, the World Food Prize’s Iowa Youth Institute (IYI) has provided resources and opportunities for more than a thousand students pursing knowledge, skills, and experience on global issues relating to hunger, agriculture, and food policy. Melissa Garcia’s passion for agriculture was first ignited in an Urban Agricultural Education class at her high school where she met educator, mentor, and current World Food Prize Iowa Education Programs Director, Jacob Hunter. Mr. Hunter saw the enthusiasm and potential in Garcia and encouraged her to apply for acceptance to the Iowa Youth Institute by writing a research paper on water issues in Bangladesh. Accepted to the Institute, Garcia had the opportunity to meet peers and mentors also interested in gaining knowledge and experience on global hunger, agriculture, and water issues. The Institute helped Garcia to discover a true passion, which has set her on the path to a career as a large animal veterinarian. Food Tank sat down with Melissa Garcia to find out how her hands-on experiences in animal agriculture with the Iowa Youth Institute helped to focus her interests and put her on this important career path.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to take your first Urban Agricultural Education class at Central Campus High School?
Melissa Garcia (MG): I am a Science Bound student, which is a program sponsored by Iowa State University that helps minorities with academic potential find and excel in a STEM career. My Science Bound teacher in eighth grade knew I loved animals, so she would write me a pass to go next door to Central’s AgriScience Campus. I saw all the animals and knew I had to get in the class somehow. During my freshman year of high school, I applied for animal science and horticulture, and I was accepted! I honestly had no idea there would be farm animals at the school barn, but my teacher Mr. Jacob Hunter is a farm-raised kid so he made sure our class had the whole package. He made the class into a vigorous learning environment; whether it was learning about breed ID’s, animal welfare vs. animal rights, doing chores, or animal anatomy, it was like a whole new world and I was hungry to find out more and more!
FT: How did your family feel about your growing interest in agriculture at the time?
MG: My family loved how interested I was in agriculture because family farming is how they got by growing up in Mexico. I don’t think they ever expected me to be so passionate about it, or that I would take an interest in helping to raise some of the sheep and cattle at our school barn. My parents were completely supportive of my involvement after school with the Future Farmers of America Organization (FFA) and the school barn. From waking up at 6 am on a Saturday morning to drive me to the barn to do chores, or by keeping them up late at night with the hallway light on while I was doing homework or rehearsing for an FFA contest, they always supported my interest.
FT: Tell us a little bit about the research paper you wrote to participate in the World Food Prize Iowa Youth Institute at Iowa State University.
MG: On the first day our class at Central, Mr. Hunter wrote on the board a question, one that doesn’t cross the mind of the average teenager in the US: “How many people are hungry in the world?” It opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone is as lucky as many people in the U.S. are due to the technology and resources that we have that many other countries don’t. Countries like Bangladesh do not have adequate drinking water. In my research on Bangladesh’s water restrictions, I learned how polluted the rivers and ponds are with garbage and human waste. Addtionally, wells in the country are contaminated with natural arsenic which causes health problems in children and adults. A little less than half of the country has access to a latrine and so a lot of people have to use the ground as their toilet. Learning about Bangladesh’s food insecurity issues sparked the flame I have for agriculture and the importance of it all over the world.
FT: How did your participation in the Iowa Youth Institute inspire you to continue studying Agriculture and Life Sciences at the university level?
MG: Talking with the fellow Borlaug Scholars at IYI allowed me to understand how big of an impact food insecurity is in our community, and around the globe. It made me want to pursue a career in animal science because I can make the difference in the life of an animal by making it healthier, or by giving advice to a farmer on how to produce a more efficient herd.
FT: What are you working on now?
MG: I will be helping to comanage a barn at my home FFA chapter in Des Moines throughout the summer, and I am raising a Hereford steer to show at the county fair!
FT: How do you plan to use your agricultural knowledge and skills after college?
MG: After college I plan on going to Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to become a large animal veterinarian. Eventually I would like to start my own farm and become a beef producer.