The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Special Report Food Security

How are we starting at home?

Working to source food responsibly

Zia Ahmed

Dining Services chief Zia Ahmed knows the challenges of food insecurity firsthand.

Zia Ahmed says he has no personal ambition. It’s an odd pronouncement considering his story.

Ahmed is the forward-thinking captain of Ohio State’s massive dining operation, which serves more than 6 million guests a year. The senior director of Student Life Dining Services is the progressive leader behind the university’s recent College Innovator of the Year recognition by Food Management magazine.

It’s an improbable achievement. He was once a hungry child in Bangladesh, where his mother, who raised three children as his father studied abroad to better their lives, had to wait in long lines for food.

“I just told this story openly for the first time recently,” Ahmed says. “My mom tells me that I couldn’t sleep when I was younger because I was hungry. Crying was the only way I could communicate my need for food.”

Later, at the University of Akron, food insecurity was again a companion as he earned a bachelor’s degree in information systems management and an MBA. Ahmed lived on spaghetti noodles and ketchup, sometimes adding an egg for protein. His journey speaks to motivation and personal fortitude.

But his ambition, he says, belongs to Ohio State. He wants the university “to be the best.”

Ahmed’s interpretation of “best” stems from his rapport with students, which has its footing in candor and respect. Their dialogue has been a catalyst in Ohio State’s commitment to increase the production and purchase of locally and sustainably sourced food to 40 percent by 2025.

“To set the groundwork for this increasing focus on food security, we have to break the problem down to the smallest level,” Ahmed says of his quantify-the-challenge, Six Sigma approach. “If I can take care of my family’s food needs, it’s less likely someone outside my family will need to. And if the university can take care of its needs by leaning on its experts and local farmers, the more self-sufficient it will be. Then on to the state, extending out from there.”

Ahmed is careful to add that there’s nothing wrong with needing assistance. We didn’t start in a perfect world, he says.

In quantifiable ways, Ahmed is working at the intersection of self-sufficiency and compassion.

“Food comes from as close as our own back yard,” he says, citing an expanding partnership with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences that now provides pork, beef, kale, peppers, grains and other foods for campus use. Plans include a new greenhouse dedicated to hydroponically grown products such as lettuce for university dining halls.

“It’s a very clean process because you’re not losing product in the soil,” he says of the higher-yield, lower-waste method.

For coffee — the elixir of life for college students everywhere, but an untenable crop in Ohio — Dining Services and Columbus-based Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea have partnered in a direct-trade program with a small agricultural community in Honduras.

“I’ve visited with these farmers and had meals with their families. Students are doing different service projects with them, like a nebulizer project with local hospitals. They’re teaching young students English because [Hondurans have] self-identified that it helps them get beyond elementary school.”

All of the coffee served at Connecting Grounds, a campus café, is from the mindful-sourcing effort.

Ahmed also works with Undergraduate Student Government to promote the donation of unused meal-plan credits toward foods such as peanut butter and tuna for the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and a new campus food pantry.

When asked what progress toward food security might look like five years from now, Ahmed is brief: “a common language.”

“Ask 10 people what food security means. Is it enough to have just rice? What if we have the same vegetable every day? Or the same grain? Is that enough, or do we need to have five different grains? If we can have a common language, that would already be a huge success.”

Ultimately, food security will require thoughtful action, he says.

“Change will come from our academic experts working with the community. We have to get out and learn from our own [faculty], our own farmers and our neighbors who are food-insecure,” Ahmed says. “Hope is not a strategy.”

The benefits of buying local

Equity. Local food systems can eliminate food deserts, areas in which healthful food options
are lacking.

Accountability. When people know who is playing a role in the food system, they’re more likely to insist that each step is ethical as it relates to issues such as safety and worker compensation.

Safety. Consuming local food avoids the risks associated with goods that are handled many times and shipped great distances.

Nutrition. When food requires long-distance travel to reach the consumer, it must be picked before the peak of ripeness, meaning fewer nutrients.

Health. There’s a correlation between eating locally and making more nutritious food choices, equating to lower rates of obesity and reduced risk of diet-related diseases.

The economy. Purchasing food locally means more money stays in the community. And jobs are created when food is grown, processed, distributed and consumed locally.

The environment. Reducing the distance food travels can decrease fossil-fuel consumption, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Help Ohio State grow healthier communities


Support the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation team’s collaborative mission to examine and address food security from cultural, political, economic and environmental fronts.


Buckeye Food Alliance pantry

Assist a student-led effort to help current Buckeyes in need.


Food Innovation Center

Help experts from across 15 colleges tackle food and nutrition issues through food mapping, public health policy, obesity prevention and other key initiatives.