Putting science at the service of world hunger

Catherine Swoboda grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, attending urban schools in a rural state. Her family life was filled with faith — she still is a parishioner at St. Ambrose Cathedral, where she was baptized — but as she grew up, she developed a passion for science.

Now 32, Swoboda is putting both her faith and her love of science at the service of the world. For the last year, she has been a lecturer in the Global Resource Systems program at Iowa State University in Ames, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 2008 and a master’s degree in crop production and physiology in 2010. By working to promote work and education around efforts to alleviate global hunger, her entire career reflects how a person in a seemingly secular calling can live it out with faith-driven action.

Science serving humanity

“I’ve never worked for a faith-based organization,” Swoboda told Our Sunday Visitor. “But I’ve always worked in (the area of) food security and hunger. It’s a direct response to the Gospel. Matthew 25 says, ‘Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.’ ... It’s about service and empathy and compassion for others.”

That includes the interdisciplinary program she teaches in at Iowa State, which focuses on how to use the world’s limited resources to create sustainable systems. It includes agronomists — plant and soil scientists — as well as environmental scientists, economists and people who study natural resources.

“It’s been very inspiring to work with students and be part of that,” Swoboda said. “I absolutely love the work I have the opportunity to do.”

Swoboda said her story demonstrates that there is more to do with an agronomy degree than work as a field scientist.

Before taking her position at Iowa State, Swoboda spent five years working for the World Food Prize, the Des Moines-based organization that sparked her interest in agriculture when she was in high school.

A teacher recommended that she participate by writing a paper for the organization’s Global Youth Institute.

“I loved my science classes and global issues,” Swoboda said. “This was right in those areas.”

In 2003, Swoboda was in the audience when that year’s laureate, Catherine Bertini, spoke. Bertini was the former executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme and was credited with transforming it into the largest and most responsive humanitarian organization in the world, in part by channeling food distribution through the women in needy populations.

“That was really when I learned about the scope of hunger in the world,” Swoboda said. “And I could see these people who had worked through different avenues — agronomy, information, education. It was very powerful. I could see the intersection of hunger and how to serve others in the hunger and nutrition space.”

Facing global poverty

The following year, she was accepted into another World Food Prize program for high school students, one that sent her on an eight-week internship to study soybeans in Brazil. Other high school students have been sent to work on hunger and poverty issues in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“You see how other people live,” Swoboda said. “There is a big world out there. It was very good for me to learn what was fundamental to me. It was a fascinating country, and I absolutely loved it.”

Her experience with the World Food Prize, as well as her education and participation in a yearlong post-graduate internship on food policy in Washington, D.C., made her an ideal candidate when the World Food Prize Foundation was looking for someone to start an institute just for Iowa high school students.

In the first three years, under Swoboda’s leadership, more than half the public high schools in Iowa took part.

The goal, Swoboda said, was to expose high school students in Iowa the issues of hunger, food security and poverty in the same way she had been exposed to them.

From there, she took the position of the director of planning, in charge of putting together the events surrounding the presentation of the World Food Prize each year.

“She was my right hand, my left hand, my right brain and probably my left brain too,” said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation.

Quinn said the way Swoboda’s faith motivated her was always evident in her work at the World Food Prize Foundation, which was created in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, who was honored for his work in developing high-yield varieties of wheat that allowed developing countries to grow more food.

The $250,000 prize is awarded annually to someone who has made significant improvements to the world food supply, whether by increasing the amount of food available or increasing access to it. The prize is awarded during a weeklong event that includes a symposium, lectures by food prize laureates, the Iowa Hunger Summit and the Global Youth Institute for high school students.

Feed the hungry

While the World Food Prize is a nonsectarian organization, its goal of feeding the hungry aligns with the directives of many faiths, Quinn said, and many participants in its programs are motivated by their beliefs.

“We see all faiths,” Quinn said. “One of the things that brings people together across the big divides — of religion, of ethnicity, of politics — is eliminating hunger.”

In her position at Iowa State, Quinn said, Swoboda is “bringing forward her desire to feed the hungry around the world and to alleviate the effects of poverty.”

While working for the foundation, Swoboda welcomed Cardinal Peter Turkson, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to a conference on genetically modified crops.

In 2013, when Kenyan Charity Mutegi received the Norman Borlaug Field Award, Swoboda welcomed her with friends from St. Ambrose, people who represented 13 African countries.

“Iowa has a long history of refugee resettlement,” said Swoboda, who is active in the refugee ministry at St. Ambrose. When she was growing up, she said, most of the refugee families the parish helped were from southeast Asia — Hmong, Vietnamese and Laotians. Now they mostly come from South Sudan, Myanmar and Eritrea.

Her ministry includes helping families meet their basic needs, including finding transportation and learning to function in a new culture, Swoboda said, but she believes she receives more than she gives.

“I never feel like I’m the one ministering to them,” she said. “They are people of incredible faith, and they have had such arduous journeys. We don’t have all the things they are escaping from back home, but this society is tremendously difficult to navigate, especially if someone doesn’t speak the language or have a job or a means of transportation. I’ve met people who’ve never seen the inside of a classroom.”

Father John Bertogli, rector of St. Ambrose Cathedral, said Swoboda also is very involved with the young people of the parish, serving as a fifth-grade catechist and assistant to the director of religious education.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

“She is a very committed Catholic Christian, and she really takes seriously the commitment of her baptismal promises, to use her gifts for the people of God,” Father Bertogli said.

“She has a great sensitivity to offer the corporal works of mercy. Her biggest gift is her hospitality, and her compassion and love for people who come to this country. She gives great empathy to people who are trying to make a life in a new country.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.