Mississippi high school students visit MSU, work to solve world hunger

Contact: Vanessa Beeson

Group photo of the 2024 World Food Prize Mississippi Youth Institute’s Borlaug Scholars recognized at Mississippi State today [Feb. 23]
The 2024 World Food Prize Mississippi Youth Institute’s Borlaug Scholars were recognized at Mississippi State today [Feb. 23]. Bottom row, from left: Blair Godfrey, Makenzie Ratliff, Makayla Ratliff and Laykin Dixon; Second row, from left: Scott Willard, CALS dean; Madison Heidelburg; D’Sharra Haggard; Joy Kitchens; Lora Holleman and Abigail Turner, programs coordinator II, global youth programs and partnerships, World Food Prize Foundation; Third row, from left: Haleigh Grant, Campbell Hargett, Alana McCoy, Addison Crippen, Kinsley Collum and Taylor Smith; Top row, from left: Ashantia Donerson, Acelia Donerson, Kayla Epperson, Landon Gomillion, Raven McElvaine, Jacquarius Harvey and Tristan Dorsey. (Photo by David Ammon)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—High school students from across Mississippi are thinking big—tackling food insecurity on a global scale—as participants of the seventh annual World Food Prize Mississippi Youth Institute at Mississippi State on Friday [Feb. 23].

Twenty-one students from 9 schools were honored as Borlaug Scholars at the event hosted by MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Students presented on topics ranging from water scarcity in Antigua to malnutrition in South Africa and policy and governance in the Middle East.

The World Food Prize Global Youth Institute was created by Norman Borlaug, a 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his lifetime of work to feed a hungry world.

Each student authored a research paper detailing a global food insecurity issue and their proposed solution. They presented their ideas to experts in attendance, including global food security leaders, MSU faculty and distinguished MSU alumni. Students discussed a variety of topics among experts and their peers in organized small groups.

“The Mississippi Youth Institute provides high schoolers from across the state the opportunity to express their ideas on solving global issues. These students are our future leaders, so it is important that they learn to effectively communicate with others. This program provides a constructive space for them to network with their peers as well as experts from industry and academia,” said CALS Associate Dean Darrell Sparks, who leads the institute.

Kayla Epperson, a Raymond native and sophomore at Hillcrest Christian School in Jackson, presented about malnutrition in South Africa. She was inspired because a friend from South Africa had firsthand knowledge of the country’s nutritional disparities.

“My friend explained how malnutrition was an issue in the country’s poorer communities. I produced a plan to train communities on how to grow their own food and sell their surplus,” Epperson explained. “Attending the Mississippi Youth Institute and becoming a Borlaug Scholar for the second year in a row was a neat experience—meeting new people and exploring ideas about food security together. This experience will have an impact on me. I’ve always been interested in agriculture and it’s giving me an idea of what that looks like.”

Epperson’s mentor is Gayle Clark, who has been a champion of the Mississippi Youth Institute since its inception.

“When the CALS dean’s office started the World Food Prize Mississippi Youth Institute in 2016, I shared the program with all the high school teachers I could, especially agricultural teachers, because it’s a great fit for their curriculum,” said Clark, who retired from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce last year.

Clark’s husband, Willis, teaches social studies at Hillcrest and last year, she encouraged him to include the essay required for the program in his curriculum. He asked her to facilitate that process and now Clark herself is a teacher at the school and the same students who attended last year asked her to be their institute mentor again this year.

“I’m passionate about the institute. I love what it teaches in terms of problem-solving and opening a student’s eyes to a world outside of their immediate community,” Clark said. “Learning to be aware and constantly finding ways to serve and teach people when it comes to hunger and malnutrition is a valuable lesson for them. They can apply this experience to other situations as they grow and study, start their own careers and serve through volunteerism and community service.”

The Charles E. Lindley lecture also is part of the event, this year featuring Marty Matlock, professor of ecological engineering at the University of Arkansas, as speaker. He served as senior advisor to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2021-2022 and was elected to the Board of Agriculture and Natural Sciences of the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine in 2022. Matlock has spent more than 20 years championing food security, exploring human-biosphere impacts, focusing on food, water and ecosystem dynamics.

Top students at the Mississippi Youth Institute will be invited to the Global Youth Institute in Iowa in October. Participating students also are eligible for CALS scholarships and can apply to the Borlaug Ruan International Internship and the USDA Wallace-Carver Fellowship.

In addition to Kayla Epperson of Hillcrest Christian School, this year’s World Food Prize Mississippi Youth Institute Borlaug Scholars are (by school):

BRANDON—Madison Heidelburg

D’IBERVILLE—Blair Godfrey

GREENVILLE CHRISTIAN—Tristan Dorsey, D’Sharra Haggard, Jacquarius Harvey, Lora Holleman, Alana McCoy, Raven McElvaine, Makayla Ratliff and Makenzie Ratliff

HILLCREST (Jackson)—Acelia Donerson, Ashantia Donerson, Kayla Epperson, Haleigh Grant and Campbell Hargett

HOME SCHOOL—Joy Kitchens

JAMES MADISON (Carthage)—Landon Gomillion

MAGEE—Taylor Smith


SALTILLO—Addison Crippen

The Mississippi Youth Institute is hosted by MSU with generous support of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, alumni Barry L. and Lana B. White and the Madison Charitable Foundation.

To learn more about the Mississippi Youth Institute, visit www.worldfoodprize.org/en/youth_programs/global_youth_institute/mississippi/.

For more on MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, visit www.cals.msstate.edu.

MSU is taking care of what matters. Learn more at www.msstate.edu.