November 25, 2019

How do you solve a problem as complex and far-reaching as food insecurity in the Washington, D.C. area? According to Catholic University alumni entrepreneur Chris Danek, B.M.E. 1989, the answer can only be found by involving as many perspectives as possible. 

That was the goal of a Nov. 16 student-led and volunteer-driven event. Prompted by the openIDEO & Rockefeller Foundation sponsored “Food System Vision 2050 Prize,” the Human-Centered Design Jam for D.C. Food Security brought together students, alumni, business leaders, and members of the local community for a day of in-depth design work on the topic of food security in the nation’s capital. 

The event was hosted by the University’s Center for Service through Innovation, which was co-founded by Danek with associate dean of engineering and fellow alum Greg Behrmann, Ph.D. 2009. Working in teams in what Danek called an “un-competition,” design jam participants brainstormed innovative ideas for providing affordable and healthy food options for those who are currently hungry. 

“We wanted this to have a little bit of the feel of a jam session,” said Danek. “This is not a competition or a hackathon, but we have the same goal of coming up with ideas so that we can move forward and begin to make some positive changes in our community.” 

The day’s events began with a keynote presentation by Jack Bobo, a world expert on food policy and CEO of Food Futurity. During his talk, Bobo explained some of the major issues affecting the food industry that have resulted in an estimated 800 million people going to bed hungry each night. He also referenced the Rockefeller Foundation Food System Vision Challenge, which challenges organizations from around the world to improve the international  food system by the time the global population reaches an estimated 9 billion people in 2050.

“We need 60 to 100 percent more food by 2050, and we’ll have less land and fewer resources,” Bobo said. “The next 30 years will be more important than any 30 years in the history of agriculture … That’s why we need to get it right and why this problem is so important.” 

Jam participants solving design challengesAdditional speakers for the day included Alex Cohen, CEO of Twenty Tables, an organization that seeks to create consistent access to affordable food, and Amanda Stephenson, founder of Fresh Food Factory & Market, a food incubator and market supporting food equity and economic empowerment in D.C.’s Ward 8. 

Stephenson said she was excited to participate in the Design Jam because “it’s a great way for different minds to come together.”

“You have people from different walks of life, different places, cultures, and experiences, but everyone can add value around a common mission,” she said.

Following the presentations, jam participants — including the advocates from the local community — split into small groups to frame design challenges that need to be solved. Using crowdsourcing techniques, the group decided on two key design challenges to focus on: “How might we help consumers in the D.C. area understand the meaning of and benefits of food security and create positive trends?” and 

“How might we create positive trends for D.C. residents in access to affordable food and making healthy choices, when a grocery store is so far from home?”

At the end of the day, the Center for Service and Innovation and the School of Engineering awarded $2,500 in prize money to two local organizations working to make food more accessible: DMV Black Restaurant Week, to support their “Storytelling through Food” initiative,  and Fresh Food Factory & Market, to help engage students in service through a community gardening mentor-protege program. 

Senior computer science major Julia Ma served as the student director for the Design Jam event. She became involved in the Center for Service through Innovation because of her involvement in the School of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars program. She said she was excited to hear from members of the local community about the specific challenges they see affecting food equity in D.C.

“The point of today is to raise awareness of these issues and also to find a community-centered goal,” Ma said. “Food impacts all of us. It’s the way that we all come together and reach out and learn about other cultures, so it’s important to hear lots of different perspectives on this issue. As a student, I don’t really have a lot of access to food distribution policy, so it’s good to hear what other people are doing who have that perspective.” 

Danek said he also hoped the day would provide an introduction to the idea of human-centered design, a design process that puts human beings at the center. Danek believes the process of human-centered design can be transformational for those involved because it requires empathy and deep listening to the stories of others. 

“We think of all the stakeholders who are involved or touched by the problems and the solutions we’re providing,” he said. “These are things that can change you as a person. I look at human-centered design as a set of methods that are lifelong skills that can help you in any facet of your life, whether its professional or personal.” 

In the months to come, the Center for Service in Innovation will hold a social innovation competition for local high school students. As part of the competition, teams of students will work with stakeholders and mentors to work on possible solutions for social problems in their communities. That event will also include a follow-up from the November Design Jam. For more information on how to participate in either, email Danek at

—Katie Bahr, Assistant Director of Media Relations and Communications. Bahr can be reached at