Of the roughly 18 million households that struggled with food security in 2011, more than two million hungry households were rural. Ironically, too many Americans living in the nation's breadbasket—the most productive agricultural states—were painfully short of that proverbial bread.
Howard Buffett witnessed this in the Nebraska and Illinois communities where he has farmed since 1977. And having seen the problem, Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, also discovered an innovative solution: What if farmers could easily donate a portion of the profit from their harvest to combat hunger in their immediate communities?
Invest an Acre is the manifestation of Buffett’s solution. He reached out to Feeding America to tap into its nationwide network of food banks, offering them new access to the root of the food system: the farmers. Archer Daniels Midland, where Buffett formerly worked as assistant to the chairman, operates many of the grain elevators where farmers are paid for their harvest, a point in the supply chain where they could easily earmark a portion of their proceeds as a donation.
And the Howard G. Buffett Foundation—with a mission “to combat hunger and improve the standard of living for vulnerable populations throughout the world”—possessed the capital and institutional values to make Invest an Acre a reality. Add to that Monsanto, which agreed to match every donation dollar-for-dollar, and the result is a program that encourages farmers across the country to donate one acre—or more—of crop proceeds to help fight hunger in their own backyards.
“Our food banks think it’s a great idea,” says Lucio Guerrero, vice president for communication at Feeding America. “They see food insecurity firsthand. We have a lot of food banks where crops are growing right next door. To have that type of connection with the people who grow the food who are able to feed the people in their community is wonderful.”
Invest an Acre launched in 26 states in 2012, working solely with grain farmers, but this summer’s historic drought threatened to damper the program. Still, Guerrero sees the first year as successful simply because the project was able to get off the ground.
“The challenge now is getting the word out to those farmers through farming magazines, trade shows, things like that,” he says. “Once it gathers steam, once that word of mouth starts going, I think you’ll see us take off.”
Here’s how the program works:
1. When farmers bring crops to their local ADM elevator, they can tell the operator they’re donating a portion of their proceeds to Invest an Acre.
2. ADM or the local elevator processes the Invest an Acre donation and deducts the amount from the farmer’s total crop proceeds.
3. Monsanto matches the farmer’s donation, dollar for dollar, up to $675,000, on gifts made before June 30, 2013.
4. Feeding America distributes 100 percent of the donation—plus the match from Monsanto—to the local Feeding America food bank.
5. Feeding America sends the farmer a receipt for their donation, which is completely tax-deductible.
Because the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (which Buffet founded in 1999) is underwriting the program’s administration costs, Invest an Acre says 100 percent of farmer donations and matching gifts made through the program will be contributed to local Feeding America food banks.
With requests for food assistance at an all-time high nationwide, and cuts to the federal safety net likely to come next year, Invest an Acre comes onto the scene at an opportune moment. Once they hear how the program works, farmers are eager to give a little back to help a neighbor in need.
“The farming community, the rural community really wants to help at home,” Guerrero says. “They’re very much about ‘help thy neighbor.’ ”
Is Invest an Acre a good idea for combatting hunger in rural communities? Let us know in the comments
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter