Maine schools can compete, fight hunger

Posted Jan. 23, 2011, at 3:40 p.m.

It’s not every day that students in Maine can help raise serious money to curb hunger. Now they can do so and take part in some friendly competition in the process.

Therefore, this week’s column is more about the wise spending of a little time rather than the way we spend our money. A few years back, the website FreeRice.com challenged students to expand their vocabularies while making a dent in hunger.

As they answered a series of multiple-choice questions on the meanings of increasingly difficult words, the students saw grains of rice filling a container on their computer screens. Every grain represented food to be donated to hungry people somewhere in the world.

Now the Maine Department of Education and Maine Learning Technology Initiative, or MLTI, are partners with FreeRice in a competition. Students in all Maine schools can take part in a different kind of “bowl game.”

The game benefits the World Food Program, whose goal is ending hunger around the globe. For every correct answer logged onto its website, 10 grains of rice are donated to the cause. (It’s “free” rice, because sponsored ads that appear on Web ads pay the freight; donations go directly to the World Food Program.)

Maine students can think globally, act locally and benefit their neighbors in the process. The Good Shepherd Food-Bank is another partner in the challenge. While sponsored ads will help send food to the needy in Haiti, donations raised locally and online will help feed a number of Maine families at a critical time.

“I think the hunger issue is something the kids understand,” said Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director for MLTI. He said young people at a technology conference last May raised 2.4 million grains of rice in just 45 minutes. They’ve continued playing the game, which now includes art, chemistry, geography, math, foreign languages and English, including grammar.

FreeRice.com was launched in the fall of 2007 by John Breen, a computer programmer and anti-poverty activist from Indiana. Breen set up the game to help his son get ready for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and to educate people about hunger worldwide.

By the following January, players had donated more than 15 billion grains of rice. World Food Program officials say that’s enough to feed 700,000 people for a day.

Mao has coordinated Maine’s involvement in the Rice Bowl with the World Food Program. A “mirrored” website will keep track of the rice Maine players win during a weeklong competition Feb. 6-12. The MLTI team will take on a team that’s yet to be named, which Mao hints will be headed by a well-known football player.

Each player will need a unique account so organizers can keep track of their progress. Players are urged to make up a user name to protect their identities (teachers will sign up younger students who want to play).

Students at all Maine schools can participate, and all adults are welcome as well. For information, visit MLTI’s website, http://www.maine.gov/mlti/index.shtml.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at contacexdir@live.com.

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