UN hunger expert helps launch ‘Fighting World Hunger’ chapter at UMaine

Posted Sept. 21, 2011, at 11:16 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — A United Nations expert is visiting the University of Maine campus this week to raise awareness about chronic hunger — a problem that affects 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world’s population.

Despite that fact that enough food is produced each year to feed everyone, hunger and malnutrition are the No. 1 health risk faced by people around the world, Douglass Coutts, distinguished visiting professor at Auburn University in Alabama, said Wednesday during an address at the University of Maine’s Buchanan Alumni House.

An estimated 25,000 people a day die as the result of hunger, many of them children, and the problem is expected to grow worse. Projections suggest that without a strategy in place, there won’t be enough food to go around by the year 2050, he said in his keynote address, “Local and World Hunger: How They Are Linked and How the University of Maine Community Can Make a Difference.”

Key factors he cited in the brewing “perfect storm” were that the world’s population continues to increase, food prices are rising and an increasing amount of what food does exist is being diverted from humans to the production of biofuels, the latter of which caught world hunger authorities off guard.

“That’s something we didn’t foresee,” Coutts told his audience of mostly college students and faculty members during his keynote address.

To that end, the World Food Program is working to end hunger through a number of initiatives, he said. These include educating young women of childbearing age in the hopes they will delay pregnancies and space them further apart and efforts to provide adequate food to young children whose brains still are developing.

But while many of the people who aren’t getting enough to eat live in Third World countries and places that have been hard hit by natural disaster or war, hunger also exists right here in Maine, Coutts said.

And the numbers are sobering.

More than 15 percent of all Mainers do not get enough to eat, Coutts said, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One in four children are going hungry. Nearly 20 percent of all Mainers depend on food stamps while 43 of the state’s working poor earn slightly over the income eligibility cutoff.

That, he said, is largely because one in three Maine jobs doesn’t pay enough to meet the basic needs of a family.

Coutts, who is on loan to Auburn University from the UN’s World Food Program. He is putting his experience and knowledge to work as part of Universities Fighting World Hunger, an academic partnership between World Food Program and Auburn University that involves a growing international coalition of educational institutions devoted to addressing concerns about food insecurity and poverty.

His outreach efforts have inspired a nationwide coalition of campuses to establish Universities Fighting World Hunger chapters at more than 170 institutions.

UMaine now has joined that coalition. During Wednesday’s event, Cooperative Extension Director John Rebar announced that a chapter is being formed at the university and that M. Susan Erich, professor of soil chemistry, has stepped up to help organize it.

For information, visit www.universitiesfightingworldhunger.org, www.wfp.org or www.auburn.edu/hunger.

UMaine students, faculty members and others from the community who want to join the newly formed UFWH chapter can email Erich at erich@maine.edu or call her office at 581-2997.

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