Education Trends

Hungry for Solutions: Can the Youth Fix the Future?

September 11, 2008

On a recent late summer morning in Portland, Oregon, I walked past the downtown farmers' market, where vendors were setting up their lush displays of fruits and vegetables. Food was on my mind, but for a different reason. I was on my way to a forum for young people about how they could help fight world hunger.

The Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization headquartered in Oregon, hosted the Portland Youth Summit as part of its Global Citizens Corps. According to Erin Thomas, who served with the Peace Corps before working with Mercy Corps, the organization is increasingly looking to young people to help find solutions for global problems such as hunger. "We need your ideas to solve these problems," she told the audience of teens and young adults. "You are inheriting these challenges. Will you be ready to move forward as global citizens?"

As the panel of experts explained to a full auditorium, hunger is a multifaceted problem with no easy fixes. They told the story with stark statistics (one death from hunger every 3.6 seconds), photographs (showing parched fields and stunted crops), maps, graphs, and impassioned rhetoric ("Hunger steals the future").

I couldn't help but think that teachers who bring a topic such as hunger into the classroom create the perfect setup for interdisciplinary learning. Getting students to think hard about the causes of hunger -- and potential solutions -- will address a range of content areas, from math to social studies to language arts to health. It's also an opportunity to connect global learning with local action.

If teachers integrate service learning into the lesson, students may wind up leading community-action teams, using digital tools for public-awareness campaigns, or applying language arts to advocacy efforts. If students probe the problem of hunger from many angles, they will learn far more than they would by doing a more traditional food drive.

Resources for tackling world hunger as a classroom topic are plentiful. Many educators use Oxfam America's Hunger Banquet as a powerful simulation activity to introduce the subject. Feeding Minds Fighting Hunger -- a global education initiative -- includes classroom materials appropriate for elementary school, middle school, and high school. (You can also check out the related Edutopia video about Heifer International, A Night in the Global Village: Role-Playing Life in Poverty.)

The Global Citizen Corps Web site is another resource worth exploring. It not only includes information about hunger and other hot topics but also offers opportunities for students to get involved. Appropriate for teens, the site has forums where students can voice their ideas and find resources for planning community-action or advocacy projects. It's also a place where students can pose questions to those working on solutions. As the Mercy Corps's Erin Thomas explained, "You can get information directly from humanitarian-aid workers. If you have questions about what's going on in a specific location, you can ask people working in the field about it."

Of course, hunger is not a problem that only happens far from home. According to an advocacy organization called Bread for the World, one in ten households in the United States faces a food shortage. That means students can find experts to interview right in their own backyards -- at the local food bank, soup kitchen, or other agency trying to fill the hunger gap.

Here are some more resources for planning integrated studies about hunger:

  • The Empty Bowls Project: Nearly twenty years ago, a Michigan art teacher had a novel idea for a student service project -- students made ceramic bowls to support a food drive. They served guests soup and bread, and then invited them to keep the bowls as a reminder of hunger in the world. The Empty Bowls Project has grown to involve schools across the United States in creatively supporting local food banks, soup kitchens, and other organizations that feed the hungry.
  • World Food Day USA: A variety of educational organizations, including the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, sponsor World Food Day USA, which is scheduled this year for October 16. The Web site includes resources, project ideas, and links to local events.
  • Kids Can Make a Difference: Geared to secondary school students, this program offers a curriculum that encourages kids to look at the root causes of hunger and then plan follow-up actions of their own.

Have you ever explored hunger as an interdisciplinary topic? What were the outcomes? How did students respond? Please tell us about your experiences.

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