Universities Fighting World Hunger Conference 2016April 14, 2016
At the end of February I got the chance to travel to my hometown of Columbia, Missouri to attend this year’s Universities Fighting World Hunger annual summit conference. There were diverse panels of speakers and inspiring keynote speakers that gathered from all over the country and world to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of ending world hunger by 2030. In the land of plenty with the technology we have today, it is absurd to have somewhere in the range of a three quarters of a billion people on this earth suffering from chronic malnutrition. People suffering from food related problems is not something that is happening overseas, many of our fellow neighbors here in this country are on the butt end these socioeconomic constraints. Many people in our very town here in Kirksville do not know where their next meal will come from. This conference gave me the opportunity to learn how people today are tackling this problem and gave me practical steps for me to be part of the solution.
We are making progress towards alleviating hunger problems, but are still a long way away. In Synergies between food security and health, panelist William Meyers started off by introducing us to what it means to be food insecure. He explained this idea to be an experienced condition, expressed as worry and stress and can eventually lead to being stunted for life if nutrition is not met early on. Speaker Mary Willis talked about their research in Ethiopia. She explained that as program incentives to grow cash crops grew, so did the effects of hunger. Devoting time, labor, and land to growing crops for money to buy food with takes away from traditional food crops used to feed the people on the land. The take home point for me was in her presentation was that each area of need should be developed by the people for the people. Food does not have to travel far to feed hungry people. She emphasized the use of school gardens, and importance for a healthy, fresh, and often season diet. Her last slide read, “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” Mary told us that the people of this country suffer from both an overdose of macronutrients and lack of micronutrients. She expressed the need for people to be more connected with their food and to develop a food culture.
The last panelist speaker in this first session was Karen Washington. Her enthusiastic aura seemed to be a result of her practical hands on work in her urban gardening efforts in the Bronx New York. She gave her advice for building the community around the people around you. These tips included having a conversation about food, especially with people of older generations, to share food with someone you don’t know, to know your farmer, and to share our resources. She implored that the solution to ending poverty would entail creating jobs. Where she lives, food is free. There are food pantries every day of the week feeding people who are hungry. To have these people burdened by economic restraints to have to pay extra money to buy healthy food is simply not an option at this time. She said that food deserts are opportunity deserts. Places that have been left under the tail of development are the places that can utilize the benefits of wholesome home grown food the most, hopefully all the while drawing in the youth and creating jobs.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Karen before lunch on Saturday. We were soon joined by the woman who heads Columbia’s Center for Urban Agriculture. These women pointed out that although an excellent conference, there were neither tours of the farmers market nor of urban farms of the area. Karen’s solution to alleviating poverty includes implementing agriculture in every school curriculum, inviting people to garden parties, getting kids involved and even incentivizing them with money for working in your garden if you can.
Another impactful session I attended titled Community and Systematic Solutions to Hunger talked about particular food bank’s efforts. In this session, the main program that stood out to me was Grow Well Missouri, and their efforts on statistical analysis before their implementation and current projects. Before initiating their efforts of helping people who go to food banks, they took surveys to see how many people that went to these food banks currently grow some portion of the food they eat. Bill McKelvey, head of the organization, had us guess what percentage of people that visited food banks grew any of their own food in their gardens. Many guesses were around 5 or 10 percent. My exuberant guess of 40 percent was still even lower than their surveyed whopping 50 percent. He explained about a third of these gardeners had been growing for many years, a third had been growing for less than 10, and the rest less than 3. Their program was designed to help these people and others who have interest in gardening start taking steps towards feeding themselves with gardens.
First, every year they buy bulk seeds. They purchase several varieties of the most common vegetables such as beefsteak tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, etc., and package them into packets with labels describing how to plant them. Then they set these up to give away for free at the food pantries they work with. They have workshops and simple lessons that give the seed recipients the knowledge needed to begin their garden. This beautiful program simply spoon feeds hungry people the ability and resources to begin providing for themselves. In late spring, they also have tomato plants in a bag, which they transplant tomatoes into 3 gallon pots and hand them out for free to those below the poverty line along with ample information on how to nurture their plant. In total, their easily replicable program costs about $1,200.
Tomatoes for me were indeed what got me into gardening. The glory of watering a seed, watching it grow, and eating its fruit is one of the ample lessons this world has to offer to develop the human experience. The good heartedness of the movers and shakers of these efforts on feeding those who simply cannot access the stockpiles of plenty we have today make the world continue into tomorrow to see the life giving sun nourishes the food we eat.
This conference gave me the feeling that we are all one community here living on planet earth, and that nourishing ourselves often goes hand-in-hand with knowing and helping our neighbors. Ending hunger by 2030 seems like a ridiculously outrageous goal, but when we dedicate souls to work together to support those who need it, we are all nourished.
Written by Tommy Fieser!