Director’s Corner: Healing the Heart of Democracy

“The human heart is the first home of democracy.  It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable? Can we be generous?  Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?  And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?” – Terry Tempest Williams

In 2015 the nations of the world committed to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals at every scale of society, from local communities to international agreements and cooperation.  Goal 16 is Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

As I think of the current status of peace, justice, and strong institutions around the world and here in the United States, I find them worse in 2020 than they were in 2015, and they were not great then.

Climate change, political instability, racial and economic injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the factors creating significant upheaval in society.

Democracy around the world and here at home is in need of our tender, careful attention.  The title of this column is the title of Parker Palmer’s 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, and this is what his book is about. Here’s a PBS video broadcast of Palmer from 2015, giving an address on the ideas in the book.

Like Terry Tempest Williams, Palmer emphasizes the human heart as the “first home of democracy.”  He defines the heart as “…intellect, intuition, feeling, imagination, will – which taken together, constitute the core of self-hood called the human heart.”

Palmer writes that the human heart is capable of great cruelty, but it is also capable of generosity, kindness, compassion, and humanity, each case determined by which one of two ways our hearts have been broken.

One way to suffer heartbreak in times of loss, betrayal, injustice, and other painful experiences is for the heart to break apart and shatter.  It becomes cold, hard, brittle. Resentment breeds, horizons shrink, experiences narrow, and the other becomes an enemy.

Another way for a heart to break, according to Palmer, is to break open, to become more “grateful, alive, and loving” for what it has suffered.  The heart expands in service to others. He describes this heart as “an alchemical retort that can transform dross into gold.”

Palmer writes that when hearts break apart, “…fearmongers whip up what Henry Giroux has called a ‘culture of cruelty,’ working nonstop ‘to undo democratic values, compassion and any viable notion of justice and its accompanying social relations.’”  Ignited this way, these hearts lose the capacity to embrace the mind- and heart-set, which nurtures the skills of citizenship, the capacity to listen and speak with openness and respect across differences to achieve a shared outcome, a common future.

Palmer calls conflict over ideas, “an engine of a better social order.” He explains that this kind of conflict is designed into our democratic system, and the unwillingness or inability to embrace conflict over ideas is extremely dangerous to the American experiment in democracy.

But that is not the kind of conflict we are experiencing in the United States today.  American journalist and commentator Bill Moyers assessed our circumstances this way: “We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power….”

The frustrations many Americans feel toward government is understandable.  For most Americans, government no longer works for them, and research bears this out. This article in Journalist’s Resource at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy provides a link to a 2014 study published in Perspective on Politics by researchers Marin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern.  The authors conclude their study this way: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence (emphasis added).”

As a result, many Americans have given up on government and disengaged from civic life.

This saddens and angers me, especially when I think about our power and potential as citizens to turn things around once we realize our agency and cultivate the skills of citizenship to deploy it.  Disengagement is exactly the wrong thing to do! Only by exercising our rights of citizenship will we grow into the capacity to regain our democracy for ourselves as one people.

Attacks on government anger me when I think about the fact that creating this form of government was what this nation’s founders spent all their time doing.  Yes, what they created was, in practice, exclusionary and discriminatory, but the institutions and systems they created maintain their capacity and promise for “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln described it.

Another danger to our democracy is the incessant elevation of individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of what it means to be an American.  In a democracy, individual freedoms dwell within our shared commitment to the common good.  Our responsibilities and obligations to each other, the world around us, and future generations are the context within which individual freedoms can thrive; anything less results in the oppression of the many.

Speaking specifically about the prevalence of individualism, Palmer made this sobering observation: “The greater our tendency toward individualism, the weaker our communal fabric; the weaker our communal fabric, the more vulnerable we are to despotic power.”

Statue of Responsibility Sketch

In his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Freedom is only part of the story and half the truth…. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplanted by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”  A group of citizens has acted on Frankl’s vision. That statue has been designed and is expected to open to the public on the West Coast in 2023.

Palmer explains why some hearts break open to become supple and strong to embrace individual responsibility for our shared wellbeing.  For some, this outcome is the result of a spiritual practice. For others, “it is because life takes them to places where it is either ‘do or die.’”

Parker goes on to say: “We are now at such a place as a nation: we must restore the wholeness of our civic community or watch democracy wither…. If we cannot or will not open our hearts to each other, powers that diminish democracy will rush into the void created by the collapse of ‘We the People.’ But in the heart’s alchemy that community can be restored.”

That was certainly the choice for Viktor Frankl, who, while suffering the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust in concentration camps, opened his heart to others by comforting and reassuring them despite his own deprivations and suffering.  He spent the rest of his life helping others develop meaningful lives, showing how “the heart’s alchemy” restores individuals and communities.

As always, the future is up to us.  Frankel’s choice, Palmer’s choice, is ours: hearts broken apart, or hearts broken open?  Are we being manipulated by those Palmer calls “the hucksters of hate,” or led by “the better angels of our nature?”

As far as I am concerned, Palmer makes it clear:  we only have one choice. “Restore the heart to its rightful role as the integral core of our human capacities, and it gives us a place of power in which to stand, along with the kind of knowledge we need to rebuild democracy’s infrastructure from the inside out.”

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Campus Changemaker: SGA’s First Director of Sustainability, Lauren Lavender

A sophomore in Neuroscience and Biochemical Studies, Lauren Lavender is the first individual to act as the Director of Sustainability in Student Government Association (SGA). This position is a result of student surveys collected by SGA that indicated Auburn’s students have a significant interest in sustainability issues. Upon collecting this information, SGA decided that to truly represent Auburn’s campus, they needed a spokesperson for sustainability. After applying for other leadership positions within SGA, Lavender was approached about becoming the Director of Sustainability. Already interested in sustainability, she heartily accepted.

Campus Changemaker Lauren Lavender posed in front of the student center green wall.
Campus Changemaker Lauren Lavender posed in front of the Student Center green wall.

Lavender had only recently begun to invest in educating herself on sustainability issues. Chuckling, Lavender remarked, “There was a time I didn’t really know what sustainability meant, besides recycling.” However, under unusual circumstances, she began expanding her awareness. While undergoing surgery at the Mayo Clinic, Lavender grabbed a random magazine to kill some time. She read an article about the effects that fossil fuels have on the environment, specifically in relation to climate change. For her, it was a wake-up call. After reading that article, Lavender sought out ways to integrate sustainable living into her everyday life.

It was not until she secured her position at SGA, however, that she fully invested herself in research on sustainability efforts on and off Auburn’s campus. On the topic, Lavender says, “You would think I got involved in this role because I had a real passion for sustainability, but it kind of worked the other way. This role gave me a passion for sustainability.” Motivated by her new responsibility, Lavender invested in her education, studying resources, and reaching out to on-campus affiliates, such as our own office’s Mike Kensler. Through this, she developed a clearer picture of how sustainability issues relate to Auburn’s campus and how she might cultivate sustainability efforts.

Lavender’s overall vision for her work with SGA is to facilitate positive educational experiences for students wherein they can find feasible ways to integrate sustainability into their everyday lifestyle. “We would love to have an event where we show people how to live a more sustainable life through small, everyday changes. The idea isn’t to make everyone this zero-waste beacon of sustainability; it’s to show people how to make feasible changes.” In this way, her approach is pragmatic; focusing on individual issues gives students the chance to exercise power where they have control. In this same vein, accessible and empowering introductions to sustainability, such as using reusable utensils and bottles, is a great segway into a deepening interest in sustainability issues in the long-term.

Bursting with energy, Lavender laments how COVID-19 has impacted her ability to implement certain projects and initiatives. “I have gotten –not a no– but a ‘yes, when’ answer from all the people I am contacting. The biggest obstacle we have is timing.” In this vein, Lavender is working on the backend to ensure her initiatives can start quickly and efficiently once campus can resume typical operations. She is pursuing partnerships with several on-campus entities, such as the Student Center, Tiger Dining, and the Nutritional Resource Center. 

In the long-term, Lavender has a vision for Auburn’s campus. She has a steadfast belief that students will be the true enactors of sustainable change. Lavender hopes that, in the future, the SGA’s Director of Sustainability will voice students’ concerns and demands for sustainable practices, and that Auburn will be known not only for its football team but for its united body of student advocates.


Post contributed by Chloe McMahon, Program Coordinator, Office of Sustainability

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Another Look Into Campus Kitchens: Partnerships Within the Community

In another entry of the exploration for community partners that the Campus Kitchen at Auburn University work with, we focus on a long-term partner of the organization. Easehouse is an independent living facility in the surrounding Auburn area that creates a catered living experience for primarily low income individuals at or over the age of 62. This space creates a “home away from home” for its residents. Not only is this a fantastic organization working to make sure this population’s daily needs are met, but it fosters a space for community and engagement, without the concern of pricing, as rent is based on one’s income assets.

In a statement from a representative of Easehouse, “Campus Kitchens has impacted our community tremendously. Because some of our residents may have limited resources, they rely on Campus Kitchens to meet their food insecurity needs once per week. CK provided residents with a great opportunity to consume a nutritious meal without having to pull from their own personal finances. Although everything has slowed down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been a blessing partnering with Campus Kitchens and the residents and staff of Easehouse look forward to collaborating with Campus Kitchens in the future.”

Partnerships with organizations like Easehouse allow for peace of mind for individuals served, where they will not have to stress as much about daily functions through Easehouse’s program as well as friendships through community, along with lesser concerns about where food is coming from. The Campus Kitchen has been able to partner with Easehouse in previous years to provide meals to individuals in the independent living facility while also creating connections through a shared meal experience. These cross-generational connections build a stronger community and social institution as we are able to connect with one another, learn more about personal history as we progress forward, and show compassion for all. Though the Campus Kitchen is not currently working with Easehouse due to COVID-19, we are excited to be able to work with this organization and build relationships in the future!


Post contributed by Alayna Priebe, Vice President of Communications, The Campus Kitchen at Auburn University

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We Must, & Will, Do Better

This year has been a challenge for a plethora of reasons. 2020 has brought a global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and a national financial crisis among so many other things. However, I am a believer that everything happens for a reason, and this year has brought many issues to the forefront that have needed attention for some time now. The tragic and unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others have catapulted a national conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, and power. These conversations have been long overdue. What started as a national conversation has trickled down to many individual organizations, business, and institutions, and these groups are taking a look in the mirror to answer a simple, but important, question: how can we do better? Auburn University is no exception.

In Auburn’s 164 years as an institution, Black people have only been permitted to be a part of 56 of those years. Harold A. Franklin was the first Black student to attend Auburn University, and he paved the way for myself and many other Black students to come after him. Though Auburn has come a long way, the university still has a long way to go. This institution was not built to support Black people, so it is going to take long and intentional work to make this university one that can support all of the students that grace its campus. I am thrilled to be a part of that change that we are seeing across the university.

SGA President Ada Ruth Huntley
SGA President Ada Ruth Huntley

Within SGA, my team and I spent most of the spring semester identifying our 2020-2021 Executive Goals. Among these, we identified a need for an emphasis on cultural competency, and we have been working on bringing a program to our campus to better educate our student organizations on the importance of this topic. Additionally, we have been working to bring this type of education to our own teams, and we are thrilled at the conversations that have been taking place within SGA. Our mission statement is to “serve and promote the individual student; unifying all that is Auburn,” and we hope that we are doing so both internally and externally to our organization.

I have also had the opportunity to work with administrators across campus to address inclusion, diversity, equity and power campus-wide. I was honored to be appointed to the Presidential Task Force for Equity and Opportunity over the summer, and I am incredibly motivated by the work that we have been able to accomplish thus far. We have evaluated several areas of campus for improvement including but not limited to the campus climate, cultural competency, minority recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff. We have proceeded to make many recommendations to senior administration, and I look forward to the changes that will come to our campus as a result of these efforts. Additionally, we have continued to support the Board of Trustees’ Task Force for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and they have made strides in evaluating campus buildings and their names. Most recently, they named the Student Center after Auburn alumnus Chief Justice Harold D. Melton of Georgia. Chief Justice Melton also served as the first Black SGA President during his time at Auburn.

Goal #16 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” My hope is that the tragedies of this year promote positive change both nationally and institutionally at Auburn University. I am thrilled that the university recently joined the U.S. Chapter of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and I hope that this membership helps hold us accountable to all of these goals, but particularly #16. I am encouraged by the steps the university has taken thus far, but I also acknowledge that we have a long way to go. This is difficult work, but I am excited about the steps that are and will be taken to better support each and every member of the Auburn Family.


Post contributed by Ada Ruth Huntley, SGA President

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Conflict in the World’s Most Important Wilderness Area: The Cameroon Anglophone Crisis & the Need for Community Participation in Conservation of the Congo

The Congo Basin Rainforest is the world’s second-largest rainforest at 500 million acres, it is larger than the U.S. state of Alaska. It has over 10,000 species of plants, and many charismatic species like my personal favorite, the world’s smallest elephant: the forest elephant. The forest elephant is small so that it can maneuver between the dense tangle of branches and vines.

One sunny afternoon, I was interviewing some forest-dwelling communities in the Cameroonian section of the rainforest near an area called Nguti. I was working with several skilled technicians and community outreach specialists from a local non-governmental organization (NGO), Ajemablebu Self Help (or AJESH), to train forest communities to draw the land that their people have held for thousands of years. We were making participatory maps of their forest tenure, or their historical right to live in the forest, and access its resources. These communities have lived for thousands of years in the rainforest, practicing small-scale agriculture and harvesting plants and animals from the forest sustainably. Now, industrial logging operations, manned by international companies who send cash home, were threatening their tenure. Participatory maps helped forest communities challenge industrial logging companies in court.

To make these maps, the men, women, and young people started on the ground, drawing important rivers with sticks and marking off religious sites with leaves and stones. Participatory mapping is done this way to make people who had never held a pen before feel confident. Once confidence grew, even the shy grandmas began to argue with the young men that things were not in the right place. Once everyone agreed on the drawing, we moved the ground map to large sheets of paper, and another AJESH colleague georeferences those maps and printed it out in large form for safekeeping in the forest community. This was the first map of their tenure they had ever received.

When I left this community in 2017, I felt that Congo communities were well on their way to securing land tenure, increasing room for participation in political processes by strengthening institutions for forest management. The winds of change had started to blow, and ministries across the Congo were slowly making more space for forest communities to have a say in stewardship.

These policy gains have shifted drastically, towards violence, civil unrest, and death in one of the world’s most important conflicts that nobody has heard of. The Anglophone population of Cameroon, after decades of feeling marginalized in access to basic opportunities, kicked off a protest movement in 2016-2017. The longtime Cameroonian ruler cracked down on these protests, shutting off the internet in the Anglophone region, and closing English speaking schools for over a year. Now, half a million people have been displaced and many activists have been jailed and even killed.

Kelly posing with the team that works on participatory mapping in Nguti, Cameroon with AJESH.
Kelly pictured working on participatory mapping in Nguti, Cameroon with AJESH.

The Anglophone region in Cameroon has seen immense suffering and disruption to lives. The crisis has resulted in a massive step back in the political gains that local leaders and NGOs were making towards strengthening institutions to allow forest communities a bigger role in conservation. For example, AJESH and I were working closely with a tribal leader to promote community-based wildlife viewing in the area around the Mbayang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary, work that has been stalled for years. Research shows that decades-long decline of Africa’s large mammals is tied to conflict.

In honor of our commemoration of Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, I ask you to do some reading about the Anglophone Crisis that still unfolds today in Cameroon. Think of the tribal leaders, the NGOs, and the hard-working local government officials in the Anglophone communities, working hard to conserve the Congo rainforest. Many of them now live in temporary housing for internally displaced people. My friends in this region want nothing more than to get back to work, solving Cameroons conservation problems with community-based solutions.

AJESH Land Use Planning Specialist Patrick Epie engages forest communities in map making
AJESH Land Use Planning Specialist Patrick Epie is engaging forest communities in map-making.

But, there is still hope. This hope can be found in what I see as the largest source of resilience and strong institutions in African conservation: a strong civil society made up of NGOs, and the dedicated people who work for them. I have worked with dozens of civil society specialists over the years, and they have single-handedly pushed for greater community involvement in forest conservation, indigenous rights, and technology transfer to these same marginalized groups. I have watched my colleagues in NGOs change the minds of ministers, skeptical of the usefulness of participatory maps. It is these same people who will pick up the broken pieces when the Anglophone Crisis ends, and we should support them, learn from their example, and offer whatever assistance we can as they rebuild their institutions when peace and justice ultimately prevail.



Post contributed by Dr. Kelly Dunning, Assistant Professor of Conservation Governance, School of Forestry and Wildlife.

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Sustainability in a Human Ecosystem

The world in which we live is out of balance. Climate scientists assert that the ferocity of storms and forest fires is intensified due to global warming, leading to great destruction. Societally, we have deep social and political divisions. Our human ecosystem is riven. As a backdrop, we have a once-in-a-century pandemic that is interfering with the human touch. With intention and a good faith commitment to listen and understand each other as individuals, we can create a social equilibrium that will allow us to work collaboratively and peacefully to meet our important challenges.

As human beings, we have the capacity to empathize and work hand-in-hand toward joint resolution of issues. Arun Ghandi spoke in Foy Hall in 2016, relating lessons and remembrances of his grandfather Mahatma. In his speech, he gave his personal view that peace can only be obtained nonviolently through engagement of the following elements:

· Respect

· Understanding

· Acceptance

· Appreciation

When we respect another, we can grow to understand that person. When we understand their thoughts, perspectives, and values, we can then develop acceptance of them. And when we accept an individual, we will have granted ourselves the joy of appreciating that person.

This is a remarkably simple formula, and it can be used as a template to foster strong, peaceful, and productive relationships between individuals, groups, and nations. With it, we can form bonds of trust. Leah Green employed similar principles beginning in 1990 with the Compassionate Listening Project.

Ms. Green arranged for members of the project to travel to Israel and Palestine that year, to facilitate difficult discussions between residents of each area. Employing deep, nonjudgmental listening techniques, those residents listened to understand and respect one another as humans, rather than as hostile enemies. The Listening Project has repeated this journey 33 times. Peace has not yet come to those communities, but many members have learned to understand, respect, and trust the other. With empathy and a good-faith willingness to understand one another, they are working toward a common interest in peaceful and secure living.

These are techniques that can be used for the betterment of all communities, including ours as the Auburn Family. We don’t always get along or see things from the perspective of another, but by listening to understand rather than to argue, we can learn to respect and work with that other person. In the process, we may learn to accept and appreciate them as treasured family members. Then, our ecosystem will become livelier, stronger, and more productive.


Post contributed by Kevin Coonrod, Auburn University Ombudsperson. The Office of the Ombudsperson is a confidential resource devoted to assisting all university members to navigate through conflict and other difficult problems.

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“So like….recycling?”: Expanding the Understanding of Sustainability

As the first person to hold the Director of Sustainability position of SGA, there were a number of uncertainties for what my job might look like when I first started. Though a slightly intimidating concept to be the first of anything, I was excited about the wide array of possibilities that lay before me. In one of the first conversations in which I mentioned my excitement over my upcoming role, I was very surprised by the response I was met with. Instead of an encouraging and congratulatory endorsement, it was a hesitant and slightly skeptical question: “So like… recycling?”

Lauren Lavender posed in front of an Auburn, Alabama sign in Costa Rica.
Lauren posing in front of an Auburn, Alabama sign in Costa Rica.

A very coarse and simple question, but one that has truly shaped the way I address different aspects of my job. It was when I received that question that I realized that one of the most apparent obstacles I would face was simply education. Though people are increasingly having sustainability-centered conversations, there are still many gaps in the general population’s understanding of just how multi-faceted sustainability truly is.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development division is to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” For this goal to become a reality, much of the effort must be pointed to teaching people not only about what this means on a national or even global scale, but also what it means for one’s personal community.

When you read this goal listed on the United Nations’ website, the first few subsections include topics such as armed conflict, international law, and global homicide rates. If you view this information at face value, it may appear as though these issues are so incredibly far outside of our own personal reach that we might as well leave them to national policymakers and global powers to address. However, within these far-reaching topics lie more local targets that once attained have the capacity to amass into worldwide changes. It is important to remember that even though one’s community can seem distant, especially right now as we observe social distancing guidelines, some way and somehow, everyone is connected. As global citizens, our localized communities connect and expand our reach far beyond what we see daily.

With this in mind, I hope you feel empowered by the impact that you can make. “Inclusive institutions” start with inclusive individuals. “Peaceful societies” are rooted in people performing peaceful actions and conflict resolution. “Justice for all” starts with just and fair relationships. When you begin to make intentional choices in how you invest in relationships and carry yourself day-to-day, you will be surprised to see how quickly things around you start to shift and your personal community starts to become more sustainable as a result.

So yes, my job does involve things “…like recycling”. But my job also involves making the effort to build relationships in a way that creates an environment where everyone contributing to our initiatives feels valued and heard. It involves starting conversations about small changes we all can make to add up to a big impact (which of course includes recycling and reducing the use of single-use plastics). It involves checking in with people to see whether or not they feel as if their voice is being heard and their needs are being met. It involves taking the time to connect with all people, regardless of whether or not their background is anything like mine, with the same level of inclusive spirit and honesty in hopes that I can earn the respect and confidence of my fellowmen. Without these choices, my efforts in promoting initiatives and educating people on the many sides of sustainability are futile.

All of this is to say, dream big, but start small. The domino effect caused by one conversation can cause global impacts. Sustainable development goals for the United Nations may seem so far removed from the way you articulate your sustainable suggestions to people or the extra few seconds you take to decide whether or not your actions and words match your personal ethos. But I hope that you will reflect and consider, without those daily small choices from individuals all over the world, how would changes come to fruition?

Be persistent, and never underestimate your own capacity to incite change.


Post contributed by Lauren Lavender, Director of Sustainability, Student Government Association

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The Pandemic & Food Insecurity: Hunger Solutions Rises to the Challenge

As the coronavirus pandemic began its relentless march around the world, a global hunger crisis swiftly erupted in its wake.  And with it, the second Sustainable Development Goal – Zero Hunger – has become more imperiled.

Instead of diminishing, the number of the world’s hungry has risen dramatically during the pandemic.  The global economic slowdown, the mounting job losses, the shattered food supply chains, and the shuttered schools have the United Nations’ World Food Program warning that an additional 260 million people globally are at risk of severe hunger, and that malnourished children could die at the rate of 10,000 a month.  In the United States, we have seen the desperate surge at food banks and food pantries, the traffic jams at drive-through bread lines, and the scramble to nourish children no longer receiving breakfast and lunch programs once the schools closed.

All of this has made the work of Auburn’s Hunger Solutions Institute (HSI) more important and urgent than ever.  The HSI, in the College of Human Sciences, forges collective action at the campus, community, state and global levels to share knowledge and best practices in the fight to end hunger.  In these efforts to create multi-sector coalitions, HSI is a key ally in successfully achieving SDG2.

With more than one in five children in Alabama experiencing food insecurity – living in households struggling to access or afford sufficient nutritional food for adequate daily sustenance – the HSI leads an End Child Hunger in Alabama initiative supported by a task force of more than 30 key state leaders and activists from government, nonprofit and faith-based communities, education groups, and the private sector, headed by the governor.  The HSI also provides leadership for Universities Fighting World Hunger, a grassroots student movement of more than 300 university affiliates around the world aiming to raise awareness of hunger wherever it may be and inspire the next generation of activists.  HSI is also the coordinator of Presidents United to Solve Hunger (PUSH), a consortium of more than 100 higher education institutions committed to ending hunger and malnutrition, including promoting academic research and curriculum, like Auburn’s Hunger Studies minor.

The Hunger Solutions Institute is also pioneering research into campus hunger.  It leads the Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs, a gathering of 10 universities in the state, and is developing a campus food aid self-assessment tool so schools can better measure and implement programs to meet the needs of their food-insecure students.  In recent months, responding to the hunger triggered by the pandemic, HSI researchers hurried to compile a comprehensive food resource guide, mapping government and charitable assistance – food banks, pantries, school feeding sites, senior meals programs, stores accepting SNAP food stamps and Women and Infant Children supplemental nutrition coupons – available throughout Alabama, county by county.

At the core of HSI’s work are the beliefs that hunger is a solvable problem, particularly when the knowledge and passion from all academic disciplines are combined, and that every individual has something to contribute to conquering hunger, no matter your academic major, skill set, or career path.  This isn’t just a task for the agriculture, nutrition, medical and health disciplines, but also for business, engineering, architecture, education, liberal arts, law, the sciences, sociology, communications, computer technology, math, fashion, design, religion, ethics — anything you may be studying.  Yes, even journalism.

After 30 years as a reporter and foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and a decade writing books about how hunger and malnutrition abide in the 21st century, I arrived at Auburn this semester to raise the clamor with the Hunger Solutions Institute.  That’s what I can do as a journalist – spread the word, outrage and, I hope, inspire.

My personal moment of great disruption came in May 2003 in Ethiopia, during the first great hunger crisis of our new millennium.  More than 14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation.  On my first day in the capital of Addis Ababa, I was surveying the scope of the famine with the World Food Program.  One of the WFP officials offered me a piece of advice: “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul,” he told me.  “You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.”

The next day, we were in an emergency feeding camp; we parted the flaps of one of the large relief tents and stepped inside to a scene of utter horror.  Dozens of children were starving to death in the arms of their parents.  Speechless, I wandered to the back of the tent and spoke with a father cradling his young son.

“What have I done to my child?,” asked the father, a poor smallholder farmer whose crops had failed in the drought.  It was a profound question, but a more troubling one needed to be raised: What had we done to his child, allowing such medieval suffering when the world as a whole was producing more food than ever before?

What I saw, and heard, did indeed become a disease of my soul.  In the normal routine of a foreign correspondent, I would have written the story and moved on to the next place, the next adventure.  But this was the one story that stopped me cold: hunger in the 21st century.  It became the sole focus of my journalism, eventually leading me away from The Wall Street Journal to writing books and using whatever platform was available to raise the clamor.

And now my diseased soul has brought me to Auburn, to the Hunger Solutions Institute, to join the next generation of activists leading the way, finally, to Zero Hunger.

Post contributed by Roger Thurow, Scholar-in-Residence at the Hunger Solutions Institute, College of Human Sciences. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Global Food and Agriculture Program at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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Director’s Corner: Hunger – There is No Excuse

The international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were created by the nations of the world under the auspices of the United Nations. Tapping experts across the globe on a range of disciplines, seventeen goals were established with a deadline of 2030 for achieving each goal. The seventeen goal topics were identified as the essential priorities for meeting the needs of all people across the world.

Each goal is intended to be addressed at every scale, from local communities to planet-wide collaborations.

Goal 2 is Zero Hunger: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” So this goal is about a lot more than eliminating hunger. It is as much about the way we achieve that goal if we are committed to achieving sustainability: eliminating food waste and supporting local farmers; providing food for all in a way that restores rather than further degrades soils, air, water, landscapes, and the climate while providing for the health, safety, and financial return of farmworkers; and treating animals raised for food humanely, as the sentient (“finely sensitive in perception or feeling” – Merriam-Webster) beings that they are.

Graphic depicting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger.
The Office of Sustainability’s Zero Hunger graphic.

How is the world doing in making progress toward this goal? Here is the U.N.’s current assessment:

The world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.

After decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – began to slowly increase again in 2015. Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.

According to the World Food Programme, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change, and economic downturns. The COVID-19 pandemic could now double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020.

With more than a quarter of a billion people potentially at the brink of starvation, swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions.

At the same time, a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish the more than 690 million people who are hungry today – and the additional 2 billion people the world will have by 2050. Increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production are crucial to help alleviate the perils of hunger.

In the U.S. 40 million Americans face hunger on a daily basis. Here in Alabama, according to the Alabama Food Bank Association, nearly 20% of our population is food insecure, more than 900,000 people. In October 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse, an Alabama Political Reporter article stated that nearly one-third of children living in rural Alabama suffer food insecurity, which is the lack of sufficient household funds to provide reliable and ongoing supplies of nutritious food for a family. One in four children in Alabama struggles with hunger. A significant percentage of food insecure and hungry children come from minority communities.

These conditions are a moral failure on the part of society in the United States and around the world. There is no reason that hunger or food insecurity should exist. It is inexcusable because there is more than enough food to feed everyone.

Then what’s the problem? There are numerous factors. For one thing, a shocking amount of food is wasted. Globally, at least one-third of all food produced goes to waste. In the United States, it’s 40%.

The food sharing app OLIO exists to connect people with each other and local businesses so that surplus food can be shared and not wasted. OLIO describes food waste as a chronic market failure: “Between 33-50% of all food produced globally is never eaten, and the value of this wasted food is worth over $1 trillion. To put that in perspective, in the USA food waste represents 1.3% of the total GDP. Food waste is a massive market inefficiency, the kind of which does not persist in other industries.”

Furthermore, “All the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK, and Europe.”

According to research cited in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, we already grow enough food for 10 billion people.


So what is being done and what can we do to resolve this market and moral failing?

That’s a big question and in the interest of space and the reader’s patience, I will be brief and stay close to home.

Auburn University is a global leader in higher education efforts toward a food-secure world. The Hunger Solutions Institute (HSI) in the College of Human Sciences is in many ways spearheading these efforts. Check out HSI to learn about all their innovative and impactful programming. HSI’s website includes a page on Campus and Community Resources for access to food which includes a Share Meals food sharing app.

The Auburn University Campus Kitchens Project is one of the most outstanding and effective student organizations on campus. These students gather unused food from on campus and local restaurants and repackage it into individual meals. These students successfully provide thousands of meals every year to individuals on campus and from Tuskegee to Opelika.

A group of volunteers for the Campus Kitchens Project
A group of volunteers working for the Campus Kitchens Project

The Food Bank of East Alabama “ works to create a safety net of community partners, programs, and direct services to meet the needs of our neighbors who struggle with hunger across our seven-county service area.” The Food Bank is always in need of donations of time and money to meet the needs of the communities it serves, and those needs have only increased because of the coronavirus.

Our individual actions in the community are very important, however, they are not enough to create food security for all that is sustainable over the long term. A humane and morally driven transformation of the food system is necessary. That requires societal commitments, including government actions and policy and collaboration at national and international scales, to create needed change.

The book Food Security, Nutrition, and Sustainability, edited by Geoffrey Lawrence, Kirsten Lyons, and Tabatha Wallington, tapped 37 international scholars whose essays address many of the topics related to sustainable food security and nutrition over the long term. Among their concluding remarks:

“Sustainability has to be the basis on which the world produces food and ensures healthy consumption for all (UNEP 2009). Along with other voices, as many of the contributors to this book argue, food security can only be achieved if food systems become sustainable.”

And the book’s final words: “The discourse about food security symbolizes the need to integrate nutrition, environmental sustainability, and social justice. No other food-policy thinking passes the laugh test.”

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