03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Life Changing Leadership in a Small Southern Town

In December, 2003 a college dean from Auburn University * in Alabama sat in a small conference room at the World Food Programme on First Avenue in New York City across the street from the United Nations Secretariat Building. What she saw -- and what she did next -- is changing the world.

She was shown a prototype website designed to engage high school and college students in the fight against hunger. When she returned to campus she hosted a series of focus groups among colleagues, administrators and students trying to determine its applicability to the academic world, and to ask them if they cared. Their answer is being heard around the world.

The website idea quickly gave way to a more comprehensive approach to addressing domestic hunger and hunger in the developing world that combines education and advocacy while fulfilling every land grant university's mission of teaching, research and outreach. And, it gave voice to the brilliance of a visionary educator with the determination to prevail no matter what.

Students are the key

Dean June Henton, who has led the College of Human Sciences for 25 years, realized that students could lead the charge like no other constituency in bringing the issue of hunger into classrooms, homes, and salons of government. A committed student armed with sufficient knowledge could create a life force that would not be drowned out. Her goal was to integrate hunger awareness into the sinew of academic life in every college across Auburn's campus.

A cadre of student leaders and the dean's dedicated staff forged a framework for campus activity. Students rallied other students. Deans were challenged to find ways of making hunger relevant to their course study, from architecture to engineering. Auburn became the World Food Programme's first academic partner. All of this was done with only a small stipend from one benefactor.

While hunger is the lynchpin of the initiative, there is something deeper that has caught the attention of thought leaders all the way to the White House. The calculus embedded in the "Auburn Hunger Model" demands that human capital be included in the complicated formulae social scientists use to measure the return on developmental aid.

In its narrowest construct the program is a platform for educating students. But, filtered through the prism of June Henton's mind it has become a tool for building political will among budgeteers desensitized to the agony of hungry people. It expands the concept of sustainability to include human suffering.

Universities Fighting World Hunger is created

At a national conference of educators several years ago the Auburn staff was mobbed by colleagues wanting to know how to launch hunger awareness programs on their own 2010-01-09-UFWHlogo_r.jpgcampuses. A confederation called Universities Fighting World Hunger has evolved with more than 100 universities in the United States and Europe participating. Each year Auburn hosts a weekend hunger summit for students and faculty advisers from around the world to network and strategize and to hear from experts in the field.

Recently, Auburn's comprehensive approach was cited by Roger Beachy, director of the National Institute on Food and Agriculture, as an example of how great issues facing the world must be addressed in a collaborative fashion by the academic world.

Grasping the enormity of the issue

Hunger is one of those great issues and, yet, it is almost universally misunderstood by the people who can actually do something about it. Americans often express surprise to learn that in the United States 49 million people lack food security, 17 million of whom are children; many of them live in urban neighborhoods where diabetes, obesity and hidden hunger have reached epidemic proportions. Worldwide there are more than a billion people who suffer from acute hunger (imminent death), chronic hunger(famine) or hidden hunger (lack of nutrients in cheap food sources) .

It's not that no one is doing anything about it. Charitable organizations abound. Private donations and government grants support food banks, research, education. In the private sector YUM! Brands has invested heavily worldwide in employee-driven programs to raise awareness and to raise money for WFP. TNT's Peter Bakker had an epiphany when he realized that WFP is as much a logistics operation as it is the world largest humanitarian agency. TNT executives now sit side by side with WFP staff helping them increase their efficiency in delivering emergency food aid to disaster victims.

Sodexo, the food service and facilities management company with a reputation for corporate responsibility, has underwritten the hunger summit in Auburn and provided funding for its first international summit last year in Rome. Among other corporations these three have demonstrated important leadership that not only ministers to the hungry, but which have infused their employees with a sense of purpose, and a renewed dedication to their employers.

But none of these can manufacture political will; it is primarily that lack of conviction that keeps the big money out of the game. Until elected officials become alarmed at the prospect of being voted out of office by an outraged constituency which blames them for failing to provide food to their countrymen who are starving in plain sight not enough will happen.

The Auburn International Hunger Institute

That constituency doesn't exist yet, which brings us back to the students. They are as seeds planted in fertile soil, fixin' to germinate. To cultivate their potential Dean Henton envisions an international hunger institute at Auburn to serve as a research center, a teaching facility, a clearinghouse, and a platform for NGOs to lend their practical expertise to academics. It will be a think tank for government officials throughout the world to speak and learn. It will be a launching pad for careers.

And, it will be a monument to an educator who found in the prototype of a student's interactive website the code to process the raw material of universities into advocates for a sustainable world built on the most fundamental of human needs: Sufficient nutrition to insure that every person on Earth can become a productive citizen of a world that needs everyone collaborating on the great issues facing us all.

All it lacks is the funding.

* Italicized words are linked to additional information