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Call it brainstorming. Call it problem solving. Today’s IT professionals call it hackathon.

“Hackathons are typically used in the IT world,” said Amanda Benton, New Mexico State University Extension 4-H agent in Santa Fe County. “It is an intense period, usually over two days, when people solve a problem.”

New Mexico 4-H members participated in a statewide virtual hackathon recently to solve real problems in their communities and to develop action plans to implement their solutions. Four 4-H teams participated in Hackathon 2020 where they chose one of four problems to research and develop an action plan during a 24-hour period.

“We really wanted to see where the youth are standing in regards to some of society’s problems,” Benton said. “We wanted to see which problems would get them engaged.”

The questions dealt with mental health issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging more youth to participate in STEM and helping alleviate food insecurity in their community. Three teams picked food insecurity and each had different ways to help. One team formed a plan to help promote children and teen mental health during the pandemic.

“It was interesting how aware of big problems they are,” said Nicole Jacobs, NMSU Extension 4-H agent in Bernalillo County. “I didn’t expect them to know as much about food insecurity as they did.”

The teams worked on their solutions all day with their coaches checking in regularly to challenge the youth on underlying assumptions and the thought process.

“It was very interesting to see the kids really collaborate and take the idea and go with it,” said Eva Madrid, NMSU Extension 4-H agent in Doña Ana County. “Listening to ideas from the youth was really a neat experience. The hackathon was a great opportunity for all of us.”

Also checking in were designated consultants who gave them feedback and suggestions during the day.

“As consultants we met with and asked the teams questions so they would dig a little deeper in developing their solutions,” said Laura Bittner, NMSU’s 4-H Youth Development interim department head.

“I was very impressed with the solutions and action plans they came up with,” said Peter Skelton, director of NMSU’s Extension and Research Youth Agricultural Science Center. “I appreciate the effort that went into thinking about these challenging questions. And the hard work that went into developing the action plan.”

The Mora Rangers team of Michaela Aragon, Diego Aragon and Kaitlin Vigil addressed the emotional and physical issues youth may be experiencing during the pandemic because the isolation that has occurred as a result of not having in-person school. The team’s action plan involved a social media campaign to promote online socializing and personal fitness practices. The plan included having teachers provide a positive affirmation daily to their classes.

The plans to address food insecurity ranged from providing “Meal Maker” kits for youth to prepare simple meals, to a food drive competition between counties, to promoting community garden participation.

The City Slickers team of Keyon Kamali, Carter Chamberlin and Alex Chamberlin from Doña Ana County created “Meal Maker,” a plan to distribute food boxes for specific recipes that a youth could make.

“Our goal is to build a child’s confidence with their ability to cook or prepare a meal rather than just having their food handed to them,” said Alex Chamberlin. “So in the future, when it is their responsibility to make meals, they will know how to do it.”

Menus ranged from simple banana peanut butter sandwiches with vegetable sticks for elementary school age children to make, to stir-fry dishes for middle and high school age youth. The plan included developing a donation system where community members would donate the ingredients for each of the recipes. The team also addressed how the meal kits would be distributed to the youth.

The Valencia County team of Adeline Richardson, Ismael Ottley and Brandon Velasquez analyzed the three ways food is available to people in need. After studying pros and cons of food banks, food baskets and food drives, the team decided to promote a food drive competition between counties to encourage donations of food to be distributed by established organizations. The plan included having a traveling trophy that would pass each year to the winning county.

During discussion the Santa Fe County Sandia Mountains team of Natalie Truesdale and Ruby Crouch realized one area that could be improved was having food delivery trucks since not everyone has transportation to food markets. The team also created a plan for community gardens where people could grow their own produce with help from other community partners.

“This was fun,” Kamali said of the hackathon. “It was a great opportunity to think of solutions to these problems.”

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