Youth across Iowa Participate in the 2024 Protect the Plate Challenge

July 9, 2024, 10:37 am | Sydney Peterson, Maya Hayslett, Lynne Campbell

AMES, Iowa - This spring and summer, at county fairs, 4-H camps and schools across Iowa, youth have been using their critical thinking skills to take part in solving a real-world agriculture challenge. They are participating in the 2024 4-H Ag Innovators Experience Protect the Plate Challenge.

“The Ag Innovators Experience is an annual program that challenges young people to apply critical thinking and STEM skills to a real-world agriculture challenge,” said Maya Hayslett, 4-H crop science youth education specialist and one of the program coordinators.

Iowans can experience the Protect the Plate Challenge at the Iowa State Fair by visiting the Bruce L. Rastetter 4-H Exhibits Building on Aug. 16.

Teen facilitators lead younger youth

Teen leaders facilitate the Protect the Plate Challenge.4-H programs from Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina and Iowa were selected through a competitive grant process and participated in the Protect the Plate Challenge this spring and summer as part of the annual 4-H Ag Innovators Experience through a grant from the National 4-H Council and funded by Bayer. The Ag Innovators Experience is designed to be led by trained teen facilitators who guide younger youth through hands-on activities.

Jenna Kujac Schlieman and Emily Olson of Dallas County were selected to be teen leaders and attend the national training at the University of Illinois on Jan. 11-14, 2024. Sydney Brown from Dallas County also was selected but could not attend national training.

After learning about the challenge, Kujac Schlieman, Olson and Brown worked with Lynne Campbell and Hayslett to lead a training held at the Student Innovation Center at Iowa State University, where they trained additional teen leaders. Iowa has 20 teen facilitators who hosted 13 events and reached over 1,100 youth, with more to come later this summer at fairs and this fall in partnership with schools.

This year’s teen leaders came from Dallas, Calhoun, Cherokee, Jefferson, Madison, Johnson and Story counties. This is the sixth year Iowa 4-H and ISU Extension and Outreach have supported Iowa teen leaders as they carry out their programs around the state.

Cindy Snell, a recently retired agriculture teacher and FFA leader at Waukee APEX, was a frequent partner in implementing the ag-focused Ag Innovators Experience challenges in the spirit of the APEX career-based educational model. Snell was instrumental in connecting with sixth-grade teachers at Waukee South Middle School so that 11 teen leaders from her ag class could lead the program with all sixth-grade students.

“I enjoyed getting to interact with youth and teach students more about agriculture,” said Olson, teen leader from Waukee APEX. “This was important to me since many of the youth I talked to did not have a good understanding of where their food comes from or the safety measures behind food production. Most of the kids enjoyed the activity and hands-on experience while learning a lot, too!”

Youth explore technologies that transform agriculture

This year, the Ag Innovators Experience Protect the Plate challenge explores how different technologies have transformed agriculture and how farmers, government and consumers must continue to innovate, learn and adapt to grow more food sustainably while focusing on food safety. The activity dives into the science behind food safety and the role of crops in food safety, especially identifying solutions to feed the hungry planet.

“I enjoyed seeing the kids want to learn about the activities that we covered, but also, I really loved just teaching the youth the importance of crop safety and safe food handling,” said teen leader Kujac Schlieman. “And with that, they can also learn how the food is grown and that it doesn't just show up on shelves.”

At each event, participants work through scenarios to solve situations that farmers and consumers might face. Youth learn about food safety through challenges focused on pesticide management, EPA regulations and limits, and foodborne illness. Youth also participate in discussions and activities to help them better understand the food production process and safe food handling practices from a farm-to-table perspective.

“Through these scenarios, youth learn about how agriculture is transforming worldwide by combining modern sustainable practices and products with data science tools to enhance crop yields, sustain world food systems and be better environmental stewards,” said Campbell, 4-H education extension specialist.

“The Protect the Plate Challenge is a fun way to learn about how farmers are producing more food with a smaller footprint and are contributing to biodiversity,” said Hayslett. “In turn, biodiversity contributes to more food production through healthier soils, pollination and pest control.”

“Participants also learn about career opportunities in agricultural technology. Innovation is critical to identifying long-term solutions for climate change, world hunger and sustaining viable and diverse ecosystems. Ag technology will play a big role in generating sustainable solutions and will offer new career opportunities in agriculture,” said Campbell.

“The need is growing for passionate individuals to take on agriculture's considerable challenges,” said Hayslett. “Educating youth on how they might be a part of the solution by developing the tools and technologies to feed our growing world while acknowledging the demand for sustainability is crucial.”

For more information, please contact your Iowa State University Extension and Outreach county office or visit the Iowa 4-H website at

Shareable photo: Teen leaders Jocelyn Martinez and Sydney Bailey facilitate the Protect the Plate Challenge with a group of youth in a 6th-grade classroom in Waukee.

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