Farmer and philanthropist Howard Buffett challenged all American farmers to donate the profits from at least one acre of their harvest to their local food banks in an effort to eradicate hunger nationwide. Buffett, the son of Omaha billionaire investor Warren Buffett, pushed for the donations during his keynote address at the Iowa Hunger Summit, part of the World Food Prize activities on Tuesday in Des Moines.
Buffett’s private foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, has partnered with agricultural companies ADM and Monsanto and the hunger-fighting charity Feeding America to create the Invest an Acre program.
One bushel of corn can help secure 18 meals, and a bushel of soybeans can secure up to 40 meals, Buffett said. Monsanto has agreed to match each donation one-to-one.
“It’s a tough year to start this program,” Buffett said, referring to the ongoing drought, “but we have faith. We’ve already collected enough to provide over a million meals, and that’s before Monsanto’s match. So we’re getting there.”
Buffett also challenged charitable organizations to set time limits on their efforts. Too often, he said, nongovernmental organizations become laden with bureaucracy and concerned with sustaining their existence rather than defeating the problems they were created to combat.
“You really have about 40 years to accomplish your goals,” he said. “What if every (nongovernmental organization) set a shelf life of 40 years? Wouldn’t their mindset be a little different? Wouldn’t there maybe be a little more urgency to their actions?”
Buffett said his own foundation will cease to exist on Dec. 31, 2045.
“I decided that we should focus all of our energy, talent, lessons learned, money, whatever we have to contribute – we should focus all of it in a way that makes us realize that every year counts,” Buffett said. “It counts because we know we’re going to be out of business. We’ve got to get it done. We don’t have the luxury of continuing forever.”
Buffett added that by continuing an organization in perpetuity, it “sends a message that we can’t accomplish our goals. It says we can’t defeat hunger. If we’re really as good as we want to be, shouldn’t we expect more from ourselves?”
Buffett’s foundation has spent more than $300 million fighting hunger worldwide, but only in recent years did he begin to understand the problem of hunger in America, he said.
Buffett began his charitable efforts with the notion that increased production of agricultural products would wipe out hunger.
“Hunger exists in some of the most productive farm communities in the world,” he said.
Several months ago, Buffett visited Fresno County, Calif., which produced more than $5.3 billion in agricultural products in 2007. That same year, the county ranked second for the most food hardship cases in the nation, with nearly 25% of residents considered food insecure – people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“Figure this out,” Buffett said. “Our country spends the lowest percent of its income in the world on its food, but it has one-sixth of its population that doesn’t know where they’re going to get their next meal.
“How can that be true?”
Almost 50 million people in America are food insecure, and nearly a quarter of U.S. children go to bed hungry, Buffett said.
Buffett visited an elementary school in Decatur, Ill., where 94% of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. He spoke with a student about being hungry.
“He told me, with a little bit of embarrassment and shame, that he was scared to have his own schoolmates over to his house because he wasn’t sure they would have a meal in the evening,” Buffett recalled. “His solution was to solve two problems. He would try to spend time at a friend’s house so that he would have a meal and he would be safe from the embarrassment of not having one in his own home.”
Decatur, Buffett noted, is home to the world’s largest corn-processing plant, handling at least 4 million bushels of corn per week. Hundreds of trains depart the plant “to go feed the world and pass some of the hungriest children in this country.”