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5 Engineering Skills That Can Help Fight Food Insecurity

By Melanie Carlson posted 01-21-2021 12:38 PM


Food insecurity is a term I was introduced to not that long ago. At the beginning of the pandemic, this term was especially publicized, as schools, a steady source of food for children, were closed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity affects a person’s mental and physical health. Children’s ability to learn and grow can be hindered by the lack of food.

Food insecurity is all around us and it is growing. In 2018, 37 million Americans (11.5 percent) struggled with hunger. Reports from October 2020 indicate nearly 50 million (15 percent) Americans may experience food insecurity, including 17 million children. In my own community, 47 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost meals through the school district.

Assisting those around us may seem like a daunting task, and I have therefore listed five engineering skills that can be used to help combat food insecurity in your community.

Organize a food drive – Whether by nature or nurture, engineers have an amazing ability to organize. The same skills used to coordinate construction schedules can be used to organize a local food drive. Our connections with local leaders can help publicize the event and provide access to donation sites, trucks, and even volunteers. Also, in the age of drive-up donations, our background in traffic flow will certainly help.

Write and speak on the issue – Although it is probably not the most well-known engineering skill, engineers have the ability to organize facts and write a persuasive argument. This skill can be used to write letters and publications, making more people aware of the issue. Our professional contacts can be used to discuss food insecurity with public officials. We can speak to service clubs and other organizations we are involved in to further bring awareness to this issue.

Assist with grant applications – Depending on the size of the food bank in your area, they may not have a full-time administrator. Volunteering our time to help with grant applications can allow the administrator more time to focus on serving and running the organization. One thing engineers definitely know how to do is fill out paperwork. This, combined with our ability to write a persuasive argument, can be a useful resource to local organizations.

Help construct a Little Free Pantry – Little Free Pantries are a grassroot effort to assist with food insecurity. These small, exterior structures allow people to anonymously give and take, regardless of the time of day. As engineers, we have a skill for taking things from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, which is one way to help this movement. Whether it is designing the pantry or building it ourselves, it's a skill many of us have. Additionally, assisting other volunteers with the siting and permitting process can be a huge help. 

Donate – Engineers continue to be in one of the highest-paid professions. Many of us may feel we cannot take time off to volunteer, but our financial resources are still very welcomed. Cash can be especially beneficial because food banks often have connections others do not, which can turn a donated dollar into more meals than if we bought that meal ourselves. Additionally, cash is necessary for the food bank to pay rent and utilities. 

Join me in making a pledge to help fight food insecurity in 2021. Share your experience in the comments below.

Resources for learning more:,

Melanie Carlson is the City Engineer for the City of Fairfield, Iowa. Graduating from Iowa State University in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a bachelor's degree in environmental studies, she spent 10 years working as a consultant engineer before moving to the public sector. When not managing a wide variety of city projects and planning initiatives, Carlson enjoys giving back to her community by serving on the advisory committee for the local school district, organizing STEM fairs, teaching Sunday School, and most recently, constructing a Little Free Pantry. She and her husband live on their Century Farm with their three kids and menagerie of livestock.

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Email her at [email protected]