The Hunger for Food

The bond between food and the entrepreneurial mindset is strong. Yet there are very few programs which consider food engineering. Find out how the entrepreneurial mindset can help us address why so many people needlessly live in a state of hunger and basic need.

The Hunger for Food

by Pat Kirby, Lecturer, Rowan University


I love food. Since I was young, I have been described as a good eater. Of the basic needs, food is by far my favorite. Maybe this is because my dad is a chef. 

top-view-assortment-vegetables-paper-bag.jpgGrowing up, I would “help” him cater—and eat. This helped instill a lifelong love of food. But what does this have to do with engineering and the entrepreneurial mindset? 

I have continued my relationship with food on a professional level as well. Through college, I worked at various coffee/doughnut/ice-cream establishments and then returned to catering to help pay bills. Food also crept into my academic interests. One of my first collegiate projects was a photo-journal for a core humanities class. Alas, my “Food is Life” project is best described as a very rudimentary (and incorrect) photographic Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of food on campus.

When it comes to food, I'm fortunate. Not everyone has the privilege of enjoying an intimate and easy relationship with food.

Let's get curious.

What trends do we see related to food? There are many data points you could pull. Here are three:

  1. Over a billion people worldwide lack access to an adequate food supply. 
  2. 30% of all agriculture ends up in the landfill.*
  3. ~30% ends up as crop calories†. 

There are issues (and opportunities!) with our food systems. These issues are not limited to supply and demand. There are a myriad of ways we can create value within this subject. So what has already been published on Engineering Unleashed? Below are cards to help connect food systems and innovation in this field into your classes:

Food Engineering

Since we interact with food daily, students likely don’t think too much about it. There are very few programs which overtly consider food engineering. 

But a casual browsing of some of the most promising start-ups beginning before and during the pandemic will reveal a great deal of opportunity for innovation in the different components of food systems. An increase in college classes and programs connecting curriculum to food systems could increase the rate of innovation in this field. 

Incorporating EM into Food Products/Processes Design

Incorporating EM into Food Products/Processes Design for Non-Food Engineering Students

The U.S. food industry is facing a pressing problem due to the shortage of highly qualified graduates to transform this “low-technology” manufacturing industry. The Milwaukee School of Engineering has a course for preparing non-food engineering undergraduate students working in and transforming the food industry with an entrepreneurial mindset. The semester-long project is divided into two modules focusing on collaboration, ideation, and realization.
Eating Our Way to a Better World- an Elective Capstone project on the Three C's

Eating Our Way to a Better World- an Elective Capstone project on the Three C's

The cross disciplinary field of food systems is a soil rich in potential projects. A thorough literature search and some prior exploration can propel one towards innovative solutions related to the food. This project occurs over 3-4 weeks within an upper-level food engineering course but could be extended to other courses as well.

Process and Production

With obvious issues with our current food systems, we can expect global food demand to double over the next few decades, thereby further exasperating the already underperforming infrastructure on both local and global levels. Non-sustainable practices, common throughout our food systems, make it even less likely for us to account for this increased demand. 

Food systems need to be considered as just that: A system. 

As would be the case with a brewery, the system inputs and outputs must be considered as well as the necessary control mechanisms to ensure that supply matches demand. Beyond matching demand, we should also consider the quality of the final product.

Brewing the Best Beer

Brewing the Best Beer: How to Integrate Process Controls to Achieve Production Goals

Upper-level chemical and biological engineering students are tasked with first identifying the important control features to brew consistent, quality beer in a safe manner. The secondary task is exploration of scaling up the production process lending to many an opportunity to practice EML. Historically, beer is known to have served as an important source of nutrients for those tasked with the most arduous of jobs.
The Life Cycle Assessment Challenge (LCA)

The Life Cycle Assessment Challenge (LCA)

Beyond its production, it is important to consider other aspects of the Life Cycle of that frothy beverage, beer. Some additional stages to consider could be the transportation, storage, and waste disposal of the main and secondary products. Life Cycle Assessments are very useful in determining some hotspots (risks/costs) related to a particular product and system. This card guides students through a project in an upper-level sustainable engineering class. The course is populated with civil engineers, but the plan can be used for any engineering discipline. The major outcome is to develop an improved product making use of an LCA. In this case LCA software is used, but there exist other tools that can be used to complete an LCA.
PBL in Thermodynamics: Outdoor Cooling for Food Bank Mobile Operations

PBL in Thermodynamics: Outdoor Cooling for Food Bank Mobile Operations

To meet our world’s growth, the infrastructure involved with our food systems life cycle requires great evaluation. More robust and sustainable refrigeration options need to be implemented. In this semester-long project, students are asked to examine the issue that food banks deal with while distributing food in warm temperatures. This is a problem that can be easily extended to stakeholders worldwide.
The Desert Refrigerator

The Desert Refrigerator

The desert refrigerator, also known as the pot-in-pot refrigerator, could be a potential design alternative and gateway to discuss EML, core thermodynamic concepts, and stakeholder design in a singular lesson or over a longer period of time.


Complete sustainability needs to be considered to improve and continue to develop the food systems necessary for the survival of our species. Water is vital in the production of food and alternatives can be examined as supply wains in regions important to our food supply. 


IrriTATE to IrriGREAT!

Upper-level engineering students investigate different design alternatives to address the specific needs of a backyard garden. Amongst the alternatives mentioned are water sources considered more sustainable, such as grey water.
Water and Energy Sustainability Playbook

Water and Energy Sustainability Playbook

This playbook contains multiple modules that can be incorporated in undergraduate curriculum to initiate the discussions and mindset required to address the needs for our future selves and generations. One such module is “Engineering My Drink,” where students are tasked (over a 2-4 class period) with evaluating different design alternatives based on metrics related to criteria related to both sustainability and performance.

Engineering in Society

As students, educators, and practitioners in the field of engineering it is important that we realize that we do not design in a vacuum. Our work finds its way in many different aspects of society from our local communities and throughout our existence. While our work may have broader impacts, a good spot to begin to investigate the impact our work can have is within our own college communities. 

Engineering in Society: Sustainability on a College Campus

Engineering in Society: Sustainability on a College Campus

Students are asked to promote their university's sustainability efforts in this project with real-world consequences—student designs will, therefore, directly contribute to a larger conversation about how to help their university advance its commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainable innovation.

Addressing Concerns and Inadequacies

To address the complex concerns due to the inadequacies of our current food systems, the metrics on which these systems are evaluated must concern each of the pillars of sustainability, otherwise much will be wasted, and many will continue to be left wanting. This is not fair nor is it the way things should be, as food is a wonderous life partner that everyone should have the good fortune to know. 


What is there to be done?
We have systems in place that do provide tasty food for many. The issues are that many people are not provided for, and the current systems in place neither lend themselves as long-term solutions nor allow for easy scaling to address our ever-increasing population. Let’s allow for further place settings at the table. 

Perhaps the entrepreneurial mindset can provide the scaffolding needed to address the issues with the systems that provide our food
. As described earlier there already exists resources to promote the development of more sustainable food systems. We can look to the 3C's of the entrepreneurial mindset to further consider this issue and continue the great work that has already been done and reevaluate in a more complete fashion that which need improvement. 

  • Curiosity: We need curiosity to understand the actual problem. What are food systems? What are the most impactful factors of the food systems? What scale of food systems should be of focus?
  • Connections: The issues associated with our food systems are very clear; please investigate things a bit further. As described, there exist many opportunities to reevaluate what is “known” relating to our relationship with food. 
  • Creating Value: The evaluation of proposed intervention value must be considered in both the global context as well as at the level of the local stakeholders. 

Understanding the needs of those involved with the life cycle of food (all of us, but more so those who find themselves wanting) is more important than evaluating what we can do for the sake of doing. 

As an old Irish proverb says, ”Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Let's figure out how to provide smiles first, and then we can move on to laughter.

*European Commission (2014). Impact assessment on measures addressing food waste to complete Swd (2014) 207 Regarding the Review of EU Waste Management Targets. EC, Brussels. 

†Cassidy, Emily & West, Paul & Gerber, James & Foley, Jonathan. (2013). Redefining Agricultural Yields: from Tonnes to People Nourished per Hectare. Environmental Research Letters. 8. 034015. 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015. 

About the Author

Pat Kirby

Pat Kirby, Lecturer, Rowan University

Pat has a background in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering with a good deal of educational experience and a desire to bring joy and curiosity to the classroom.

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