Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

March Forth

They are marching again in Alabama with no less passion than the civil rights campaigners of the 1960s.

“Our time is now!” say the students of Auburn University, who are plotting a 60-mile march from their campus to Montgomery later this month. They will rally on the capitol steps and then spend a day lobbying the state’s lawmakers.

“We’ll let them know what we think,” says Emma Jane Keller, 22.

What they think is this: 1 billion hungry people in the world is a disgrace, a shameful injustice in the 21st century when more food is being produced than ever before. Their message to the politicians in Montgomery and beyond: End hunger now.

“All great changes in society have started with college students,” Emma says. “We’re not jaded by the world. You believe you can change the world.”

Emma is the president of Auburn’s Committee of 19, a student group that directs the campus War on Hunger program and that has the subversive ring of an underground group of revolutionaries in Cold War Eastern Europe. The aura fits the mission, for ending hunger will require a toppling of entrenched policies and philosophies that have punished the small farmers of the developing world, particularly in Africa, and tolerated a billion hungry people.

As Irish rock star Bono says in our book Enough: “How, in a world of plenty, can people be left to starve? We think, ‘It’s just the way of the world.’ But if it is the way of the world, we must overthrow the way of the world.”

A revolution, that’s what we’re talking about here. A grassroots revolution that will overturn the neglect of agriculture development and spark a new Green Revolution specifically tailored to the farming and nutritional needs of Africa and the environmental conditions of today.

The we-can-do-anything ambition of Auburn’s hunger fighters resulted in 60 students setting out on a first march last fall. “It was kind of a crazy idea; people said it wouldn’t happen,” Emma remembers.

But march they did. A couple of hours into the first day, the students were hit with a drenching rain. Shoes grew tighter, blisters burst, backpacks became heavier. A core group of students persisted, walking 25 miles the first day, 25 miles the second, and then a final 10 miles into Montgomery.

“Some women in Africa walk 20 miles a day just to get water. Every day,” says Lauren Wissert, 21, the vice president of the Committee of 19. Just by walking, Lauren notes, the Auburn students “raised awareness of what life is like for these women.”

This year, the Committee is hoping to lead a 150-strong march. (And what better day to write about the possibilities than today, the only declarative sentence on our calendar: March Fourth!)

“It’s an election year,” notes Clark Solomon, the Committee’s incoming president. “We’ll call [the legislators] out on the hunger issues. Completely nonpartisan.”

The marchers also raise money from pledges; it will mainly benefit the World Food Program.

The Committee of 19 was so named because, at its founding in 2004, 19 cents was the WFP’s daily cost of feeding a hungry school child in the developing world. Now, with higher food prices, that cost is up to about 25 cents, but the Committee won’t change its name.

“It gives us a great story to tell,” Emma says. “And it shows the changing (worsening) situation of hunger.”

The Committee of 19 links all the schools and colleges on campus with representatives from each academic discipline. (The university even offers a hunger minor.) The idea is to foster a myriad of ideas to attack hunger.

“I’m human sciences,” says Emma, “and the way I think about hunger is completely different from the way an engineering student thinks."

Engineering student Lori Beth Dutcher, a Committee member, says: “We think a lot about the root causes of hunger and solutions. Irrigation. Bridges and roads and better ways of getting food to people. Appropriate technology. We’re barely scratching the surface.”

Courtni Ward, the Committee’s incoming vice president studying international business, has her fellow students thinking of micro-finance and corporate social responsibility programs. They have created posters to help with enlistment. “Make Hunger Your Business,” says one. Proclaims another: “Kick Hunger in the … (picture of a donkey).”

Auburn, a land-grant university on the plains of east Alabama, is at the center of a rising “end hunger” clamor coming from universities. Auburn developed a relationship with the United Nations in 1994 when the College of Human Sciences launched the International Quality of Life Awards in conjunction with the U.N.’s International Year of the Family. June Henton, dean of the College of Human Sciences, then led Auburn into a partnership with the U.N.’s World Food Program. Together they launched a War on Hunger campaign, which has now expanded into an alliance of more than 130 universities around the globe known as Universities Fighting World Hunger.

Last weekend, about 200 students from some two dozen of those schools gathered at Auburn for the annual summit.

“It’s our passion at Auburn to see that we get universities organized, that we have a collective voice,” said Harriet Giles, director of external relations for the College of Human Sciences and an advisor to the Committee of 19. “We need a voice and we need to be heard.”

The summit voices were loud and clear and urgent. “Engage and empower students … now!” proclaimed a presentation from representatives of the University of Guelph in Canada. “Universities must engage … now!”

“If we work together, we can change things,” said Mike Giancola, the director of the Center for Student Leadership, Ethics and Public Service at North Carolina State University. “There’s no copyright on hunger. We’ll steal some ideas from here and take back to our school. And we hope you’ll steal from us.”

One awareness-raising idea he proposed: a 40-hour fast at universities across the United States and Canada.

Sarah Nam, who leads the Harvard College Global Hunger Initiative – students from various studies ranging from math and investment banking to environmental science and nutrition work on innovative solutions, such as a health training program targeting malnutrition in Uganda and a text messaging service to provide crop prices to farmers in Kenya -- says she was “particularly inspired by Auburn’s hunger walk. It’s such a commitment of time and energy, I don’t know if we could have done it (at Harvard.)”

But the Committee of 19 would like Harvard and all the other universities to try.

“Our goal,” says Emma Keller, “is to get all universities involved, to walk to the capital cities and have rallies, all on the same day.”

March forth with a clarion call to action. That will amplify the clamor.

“Nobody is pro-hunger,” Emma says. “It’s just a matter of bringing it to the top of their agendas.”

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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