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Buffett drafts farmers to fight hunger

"Farmers are in the front line against hunger," Howard G. Buffett told 600 participants today at the sixth Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines, Iowa. “Hunger in the U.S. Is hidden behind closed doors,” he said.

In his keynote address, Buffett shared his efforts to alleviate hunger through the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, founded in 1999. He also stated that since he launched the Foundation, he’s come to realize that more needs to be done to address the issue of hunger in the United States.

The Iowa Hunger Summit, organized by the World Food Prize, brings together community, business and civic leaders united by the fight against hunger -- at home and abroad. The World Food Prize Symposium is October 17-19 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Buffett has been a featured speaker at the Summit for three years. He operates a farm in Illinois, manages a family farm in Nebraska, and oversees a Foundation-operated research farm in South Africa.

“It’s the first time I’ve been here that I’ve been done with harvest,” he said. “Of course, the reason is that some fields only yielded 25 bushels per acre.”

Buffett stated that reducing hunger Is critical because 60% of hunger in Africa is linked to armed conflicts. He said that immigrants risk their lives to come to the U.S. so they can send money for food back to their families. He added that hunger also is detrimental  to school children who can’t concentrate because they’re hungry.

He noted that 21 million in the U.S. receive free and reduced school lunches, and that this number is up 17% since 2007.

Buffett, an accomplished photographer, used wide-screen displays at the front of the room to take the audience “on a trip around the world” through his photos of people in third-world countries.

“These are the faces of hunger,” he said. “We’ve tried to reach them, but we can’t reach all of them. They fade away and become statistics.”

Buffett said, “I used to think that if we produced more crops, then we’d be able to feed more people. That is one component of it, but that’s not the solution. Hunger is much more complex.”

He noted that Fresno County, California, is a top-producer of agricultural products. “In Africa, 15 countries combined don’t equal the production of Fresno County,” he said.

He also noted that Fresno County ranks second in a measure of food hardship in the U.S. “Twenty-five percent of people in the county are hungry,” he said.

In the U.S., an estimated 50 million people are hungry.

“In a country where we spend 6% of our disposable income on food, one-sixth of our population doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Buffet says. “How can this be true? There’s a huge disconnect.”

Buffett said that these statistics on hunger are personal for him. He recounted stories of some of these people he’s met in the U.S.

He mentioned the World War II veteran who only had a box of Cheerios in his cupboard. The veteran died a few months after their first meeting. “I can guarantee you that Everett died hungry,” he says.

He talked about the sixth grader at a Decatur, Illinois, school who said he was embarrassed to invite friends home because he didn’t know If there would be food. “So, instead, he spent time at friends’ homes so he didn’t have to take that risk,” Buffett said.

Buffett noted that 21 million in the U.S. receive free and reduced school lunches, and that this number is up 17% since 2007.

He cited an unemployed couple, a jet mechanic, and an accountant. “They told me that they scavenged for food under the cover of darkness,” he said. “This is not the American dream.”

Buffett said when he started working in African countries, they gauged poverty by asking one question: How many people live on $1 per day?

“Recently in USA Today, I read that the number in the U.S. who live on $2 a day has doubled since 1966,” he said. “It was a shock to me to think the same standard of how to measure poverty in the third world was being used to qualify hunger in the U.S."

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, almost 30% of people are living in poverty, he said. “This puts their families at risk and creates barriers against their children’s ability to succeed.”

“In this country, people make choices between medical needs and food,” he said. "Is this really a choice that Americans have to make? It’s inexcusable in a country that produces so much.”

Buffett stated that people who qualify for the SNAP Program (food stamps) have an average monthly gross income of $711. “Four out of five of these families include someone who is elderly, disabled, or a child. Not many of us would be able to make this amount of money for food work,” he says.

He recalled that a speaker at a farm meeting in Assumption, Illinois, 12 years ago helped him look at his priorities differently.

“Most farmers think farming is a continuous cycle of planting, harvest, spraying, planting, harvest, spraying,” he said. “We were told to think about it differently. Most of us will have about 40 chances to get it right between the time we get on the combine for the first time, and the time when our children replace us.

“It’s similar to life,” Buffett added. “We have about 40 years to accomplish our goals. This adds more urgency, and a sharper focus on the lessons learned and resources invested. We have to realize that every year counts. What we accomplish in 40 years is our legacy. Will it be as good as we want it to be, or should we expect more of ourselves?”

Buffett told the Iowa Hunger Summit audience about his Foundation’s newly-launched Invest an Acre program, with support from Monsanto, ADM, and Feeding America.

Farmers donate 1 acre or more of gross crop proceeds to an ADM facility. The facility writes a check to Feeding America, and 100% will be donated to a participating local food bank. Farmers will receive a receipt for their charitable contribution.

“It’s a tough year to start,” he says. “Facilities usually have grain lying on the ground.”

But he told the audience that he remains hopeful. “Programs don’t change things, it’s people and human capital that change things. Let’s put hunger out of business,” he says.

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