Office of Public Affairs

USM hosts first-in-the-Northeast hunger summit

Mark Rank

More than 500 students, faculty and activists gathered recently at the University of Southern Maine for the 2019 Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit, the 13-year-old organization’s first summit in the Northeast.

“How do we make a system where people don’t have to worry about the basic access to food so they can take care of themselves— so they can study, they can contribute, they can add value and live a whole and healthy life?” USM President Glenn Cummings asked.

For three days — March 14, 15 and 16 — people from as far away as Hawaii, the Netherlands and Tanzania struggled with the question as it pertained to populations worldwide. The USM Food Studies Program, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the Maine Campus Compact co-sponsored the events.

On March 14, the group Presidents United to Solve Hunger, known as “PUSH,” began the discussion of hunger on and off college campuses. USM President Cummings has joined more than 100 university presidents and chancellors from four continents who have signed a pledge to work toward zero-hunger campuses, communities and nations.

On March 15, the summit included a dinner with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine and Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of Food First and author of “A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, "Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?"

"USM Food Studies was honored to co host this year's summit along with Maine Cooperative Extension and the Maine Campus Compact," said Michael Hillard, a USM Economics professor and the director of USM's Food Studies Program. "We brought over 400 students, scholars and activists from across the country and globe.  We were proud to bring in many of our Maine partners working on hunger and poverty - including Preble Street Resource Center, Maine Equal Justice Project, The Locker Project, and Cumberland County Food Security Council, and leading national experts to bring a sharp focus on campus, Maine, U.S. and global hunger.  The conference reinforced the well known conclusion that we have the means and methods to solve hunger, but face widespread ignorance of the underlying causes or political will to bring these solutions to bear.   The students (including dozens from USM) and other participants came away with the inspiration and tools to move the issue forward.  By all accounts, this was the biggest and most successful Summit thus far (the 13th year)."

The summit began with a keynote by Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare for Washington University at St. Louis. He has written several books on poverty, social welfare, economic inequality and social policy.

He asked attendees to think differently about poverty, particularly in the U.S. He said that Americans tend to underestimate the widespread nature of poverty and its causes. About 40 percent of Americans will spend a year below the poverty line between the ages of 25 and 60, and the causes tend to be structural rather than the fault of individuals, he said.

“We find children with not enough to eat, we find families without healthcare and we find people living on the streets,” he said. “It’s a moral outrage.”

During an afternoon panel, the talk focused on anti-hunger initiatives at a variety of colleges and universities — including New York University, the University of Michigan and the University of New Hampshire. At each school, they found students who were missing meals because they lacked the money to eat.

Jonathan Chin, who founded Share Meals at NYU, said he had experienced hunger in his own childhood, but he was surprised when he discovered it among the student body.

“I knew nothing about hunger,” said Chin, who created an app for NYU students to share meals electronically. “Right now we have 5,000 users and we are able to redistribute meals to students who need them.”

Hillard and student Draven Walker recently appeared on the USM Now podcast on WMPG. They spoke with host Suzanne Murphy about USM’s new Food Studies minor and the 2019 Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit. Listen to the USM Now Podcast to find out more.