By JOHN FLESHER, Associated Press
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Farmer and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, wants to enlist fellow food producers in a new campaign to fight hunger in rural America.
Buffett and other organizers planned to announce the "Invest an Acre" initiative Thursday. It will encourage farmers around the nation to donate profits from the sale of 1 acre's crop to the charity Feeding America, which will use the money to support food banks in rural communities where advocates say malnutrition is a serious — if often overlooked — scourge.
"Poverty and hunger in rural America is very much out of sight, out of mind," said Howard Buffett, who in 1999 established a foundation to help the world's needy. "It doesn't jump out at you. It's not like the brazen images of starving children in Ethiopia ... but that doesn't mean it isn't just as devastating to people who are hungry."
Anti-hunger groups are numerous. Buffett acknowledged in a phone interview that even his idea of challenging farmers to donate a share of their earnings isn't original. But he hopes the support of another partner — agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland Co. — will help "Invest an Acre" establish a nationwide reach that will set it apart.
ADM will send postcards to 80,000 commodity producers who sell their crops through the company's network of grain elevators asking them to support the program, said Jen Hogan, manager of grain origination. They'll be able to donate when dropping off truckloads of grain or make pledges when signing contracts with the company.
There are no financial incentives for participating and no obligation to do so, but Hogan said she expects many ADM customers will jump at the chance.
"Our farmers are very charitable to begin with. They're giving donations to schools, churches," she said. "We think they'll see the value in being able to help feed their neighbors who have run into some hard times."
Buffett's foundation has focused largely on areas of the world that many aid groups avoid because of war, geographic isolation or other challenges. About 85 percent of its funding goes to other countries. Buffett said it has devoted more attention to domestic hunger in recent years as the economic downturn has driven many Americans into unemployment and want. Feeding America says the number of people served by its network of food banks rose from 25 million in 2006 to 37 million in 2010.
"It should be unacceptable that so many are suffering in such a wealthy country," Buffett said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 14.7 percent of rural households consistently ran short of food in 2010. The rate was worse in urban areas — 17 percent.
Yet experts say hunger in the countryside presents unique challenges, particularly because of long distances and a lack of transportation options.
"If you have to drive two hours to get to a grocery store or a food bank, of course you are going to be underserved," said Corinne Alexander, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.
The image of self-sufficient rural residents growing their own food is increasingly outdated, Alexander said.
"Farms have become so much more specialized," she said. "You might be a grain farmer. You might be a livestock farmer. And in rural areas, there are a lot of people who are just not farmers."
Alexander said a farm's size and productivity likely will determine the operator's willingness to support the "Invest an Acre" program.
ADM's recruitment efforts will target producers who sell to about 250 of the company's elevators, mostly in the Deep South, Midwest and Great Plains, Hogan said.
Buffett's foundation will pay the program's administrative and marketing costs. Feeding America, an umbrella group representing 90 percent of the nation's food banks, will distribute the donations to local communities, CEO Vicki Escarra said. Food banks are similar to wholesalers, providing food to pantries run by houses of faith and charities.
Buffett, 57, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,300 acres near Decatur, Ill., said he couldn't predict how many farmers would join the program but is betting on its success — following the example of his father, who encouraged his children to be innovative and take risks.
"He's always said you're never going to bat 1,000 if you try something difficult, but it's better to strike out a few times than ... always playing it safe," Buffett said. "I can't think of any better group in this country than farmers that would want to help hungry people. That's what we do — we grow food."
Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this story.