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2024 President’s Award Winner Has a Hunger for Addressing Food Deserts

Through her nonprofit, Ekua Hudson, CAS/BA ’24, is working to create an equitable food system for underserved communities in DC and beyond.

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Ekua Hudson (left) with AU President Sylvia Burwell. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Ekua Hudson, CAS/BA ’24—American University’s 2024 President’s Award winner—is taking a bite out of food insecurity.

The public health major learned at an early age how a lack of access to fresh produce can be a barrier to good health. Growing up, the Orlando, Florida, native spent summers in Accra, Ghana, watching her father tend organic crops to nourish the family, including his sister with an autoimmune disease triggered by chemicals.

Today, about 44 million Americans—including one in seven DC children—are food insecure, according to Feeding America. During the pandemic, that crisis was exacerbated in Washington, which Hudson called “the epicenter of food deserts.”

“The pandemic heightened food insecurity for a lot of people, so it was a great time to actually step in and do something about it,” Hudson said.

In December 2020, after taking a master class as part of the Frederick Douglas Distinguished Scholar program, Hudson launched her own nonprofit, the Food for Thought Foundation, to work to eliminate food deserts across the country.

Hudson was named the President’s Award winner for her changemaking work to create a more equitable food system. The highest honor for AU undergraduates recognizes one student each year who demonstrates exceptional academic achievement, integrity, selflessness, leadership, and service to the DC community. It comes with a $1,000 award.

“Ekua is a devoted scholar who is also committed to achieving purpose and impact throughout her life,” President Sylvia Burwell said. “From her research on food insecurity and her development of technology to help address these issues in our local community to her nonprofit work to raise awareness and educate, she embodies the changemaking spirit that is part of who we are at AU. I know that she will continue to have incredible impact.” 

In her role as director of the nonprofit run by students from AU and the University of Florida, Hudson manages the board of directors and directs food distribution programs that have benefitted 60 families. Hudson has also been working on the prototype of a hydroponic vertical farm that is as efficient as a garden but produces a higher quantity of food with more nutritional variety and uses less space.

“We needed to find a way to produce food in low-income areas without all of these overhead costs,” Hudson said. “We were like, OK, vertical farms are easy to deploy because you can put them in community centers. People love them.”

Hudson built her prototype in AU’s Design and Build Lab and taught herself how to code through YouTube videos on the Arduino language. While at AU, Hudson taught a course every week at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast DC about food systems, food justice, and computer coding. She also installed vertical farming machines in DC Public Schools, thanks to a partnership with a company called Garden.

This fall, she will pursue a master’s in biomedical engineering at Boston University to help further develop her prototype. In the meantime, she is applying for grants and working to hire a team of people who can help her scale and run the nonprofit while she’s in graduate school.

“The ultimate goal is to get a new food system piloted . . . to say, ‘Look world, look at what we did in this city [to] create a decentralized produce network that is community-based and localized,’” Hudson said.