Real-World applications of mathematics in the area of social justice

Are you looking for a world-class social justice application of algebra that your students can understand and use in situations they see going on around them, in stories online and on tv?

The world’s leading humanitarian organization, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), was the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and 2021 Edelman Prize winner for the most creative and impactful application of Mathematical Modeling and Data Analytics. WFP is saving and changing lives by delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience. While working to reach their ultimate goal of zero hunger, WFP assisted nearly 100 million people across 88 countries in 2020. Analytics has supported WFP’s management of its vast and complex humanitarian operations, helping it reach more people, respond faster in emergencies, and realize significant savings that are used to improve lives and empower communities.

In this installment, we provide access to:

  1. For the classroom: How systems of inequalities are more valuable than equations in teaching
  2. The REAL “real world” description of the humanitarian effort to achieve zero hunger
  3. In search of the Golden Nugget: A technical paper regarding the mathematical modeling utilized by the UN WFP
  4. In His Own Words: Koen Peters, Head of Development for Supply Chain Planning & Optimization and developer of the mathematical modeling effort utilized by WFP, is featured on Resoundingly Human podcast
  5. And the Winner Is:  United Nations World Food Programme video of its Edelman Competition Presentation

For The Classroom: Systems vs. Equations

In my previous blog, I challenged math educators to remove absurd examples that use simultaneous equations to find answers for things that could be simply counted. Needless to say, I was chagrined but not surprised when I read a recent math education article that used the “classic” example of a farmer who counted the number of heads and feet on the pigs and chickens in the barnyard. I envisioned the farmer lying on the ground with his sight obscured, trying to count and keep track of the animal legs in the yard. Imagine the farmer’s consternation when the leg count was an odd number. What was he to do? Start counting over! Or look for the animal with a missing limb. I guess this problem is supposed to show that algebra is relevant to agriculture.

I countered with a product planning example in which all resources must be used to produce two different products. The “must use all” requirement creates a system of “equations.” In the literature of actual linear programming case studies, inequalities play a much more significant role than equations. Limited resources are often represented as upper bound constraints and lower bound inequality constraints that define minimum requirements. To see high school level examples of meaningful systems of inequalities, download a free sample of Mathematical Modeling with Algebra, a textbook designed to resonate with high school students’ interests and demonstrate the broad applicability of mathematics.

Humanitarian Operations and Analytics

ORMS Today is a professional magazine published by INFORMS, carrying stories about math modeling projects with broad current interest written in a straightforward, approachable manner. The UN World Food Programme was featured in the June 4, 2021 issue. The article highlights the tools and partnerships developed to strive toward their Zero Hunger goal amid a global pandemic.

In search of the Golden Nugget

Not all high-brow, dry, technical papers should be automatically dismissed when considering material for classroom use. This paper, The Nutritious Supply Chain: Optimizing Humanitarian Food Assistance, published in INFORMS Journal on Optimization Vol. 3, No. 2, discusses the mathematical modeling example used by WFP to reach across 80 countries to provide approximately 90 million people with food. To understand the entire paper, you would need an advanced background in mathematical modeling. However, high school teachers can use the algebraic representations on pages 218-224 of the article to illustrate real-world systems of inequalities. These pages provide examples of lower bound constraints on the nutritional content of food baskets and upper bound constraints on available food supplies.

In His Own Words

Koen Peters, Head of Development for Supply Chain Planning & Optimization at World Food Programme, leader of the UN WFP mathematical modeling effort, and TEDx speaker was interviewed earlier this year by INFORMS’ Ashley Kilgore for her podcast Resoundingly Human. Tune in to hear Koen’s perspective on the vital work the WFP team is doing, the role analytics plays in this humanitarian effort, and the honor of being considered for the 2021 Edelman Award.

And the Winner Is

As part of the competition for the 2021 Edelman Prize, the UN WFP team produced this compelling presentation video. The exhibit highlights the challenges faced, the strategies used, the overall impact, and WFP’s continuing use of analytics. Koen briefly discusses the actual math model used at minute 13 of the video. How can you imagine using it in your classroom?


As you can see, there can and should be more than “math for math’s sake” in the classroom. As teachers, we have endless possibilities to engage and challenge our students with examples of problems they will find compelling.