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Service & Impact
summer 2021

Still Hungry For Change

Former Global Famine Relief Chief Ertharin Cousin On Making a Difference
Written by: Andy Butcher

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t only present the world with a major new crisis. It also brought to the surface other long-standing challenges that had been ignored, downplayed, or overlooked—like the lines stretching further outside so many food banks.


With parents out of work and schools closed so kids from low-income homes couldn’t get the free meals they usually received, the number of people seeking help from food pantries and charitable groups in the United States mushroomed. Between May and December 2020 there was a 10-15% increase in people needing some kind of food assistance.


But that notable spike only gave a higher profile to an enduring problem—that while lots of food goes to waste, too many people in the United States and around the world go to sleep at night hungry.


A shared tragedy
Ertharin Cousin has seen hunger at its worst in desperate corners of the world, but that doesn’t diminish her concern for its impact at home. “If the children are malnourished on the South Side of the city of Chicago, that’s no less of a tragedy than children who are malnourished in South Sudan,” she says. “This is the land of the free and the home of the brave: We should not have families living in America that can’t put a nutritious meal on the table because they can’t afford it.”


Hunger has “a very diverse face” in this country, Cousin notes. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s by no means exclusively an inner-city problem—though it’s certainly a big one there. The number of hungry people who are suburban whites is higher than most people think, she points out.


There are some clear disparities, however, in terms of income and access to nutritional food. And Cousin has a stark assessment of things: “The challenge that we have as a nation is that there are too many Americans today who live without hope, who live on and in a level of economic precariousness that is comparable to what I see in developing countries.”


Experts in the field distinguish between famine, where people are literally in danger of starving to death, and what they call “food insecurity”—those living not knowing where their next meal is coming from.


Famine is usually the result of brutally obvious factors—natural disasters or war (which accounts for 60% of the world’s hungry, who live in “conflict-affected” areas, she notes)—while “food insecurity” is not always as clear. It may be that there is no food available. It could be a question of access; there’s food but you can’t afford it, or it’s too far away. Third, there’s the inability to consume properly what you do eat; for instance if you live without access to clean water, so your body doesn’t absorb what you eat.


“Hunger just tells you what you feel,” Cousin says. “It doesn’t tell you why you feel that way.”


Leading the fight
Cousin’s naming to Time’s 100 Most Influential People list and Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list, among others, points to the impact she has made since graduating from the University of Illinois and the University of Georgia’s School of Law in the early 1980s.


From senior vice president at Albertsons Food Stores she moved to America’s Second Harvest as executive vice president and CEO. Then three years as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations’ food and agricultural agencies were followed by her tenure with the United Nations World Food Program.


Since leaving that last position she has served as a Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. She is also CEO and Founder of Food Systems for the Future, an investment fund focused on helping businesses that provide access to nutritious foods for underserved and low-income communities, domestically and overseas.

Sometimes you don’t plan a career. God keeps directing you.

ERTHARIN COUSIN


It all seems like a clear trajectory, but despite her lifelong desire to help others, she says that “sometimes you don’t plan a career. God keeps directing you.” She simply found opportunities to make a difference in the hunger space, responded, and then another would come along.


“You look behind you and you see that, wow, that wasn’t where I expected to go,” she reflects. “But those open doors each gave me a different opportunity to make a difference, to use my intellect, my tools, my capacity, and to fulfill my passions for making change and creating opportunities for others.”

The challenge that we have as a nation is that there are too many Americans today who live without hope.


Making an impact
Not everyone has the background, the skills, the drive, or the connections that have enabled Cousin to make a difference on the scale that she has. So what would she say to someone who is passionate about a cause, but feels inadequate because they know they could not achieve what she has?


“Every action, no matter how small, can make a difference,” she answers. “So if you’re affecting one family because you collected food and gave it to the neighbor down the street, you are making change. We see this a lot in the suburbs, where you have women who are single parents who are working to make ends meet and they have too much pride to ask for help.”


You may not have the opportunity to impact millions, as she has. But the question to ask is, “How do I make a difference to my family and my community and my neighborhood in my country? Because any one life that you affect is as important as 85 million.” Just do some simple math, she goes on: “We have 7 billion people in the world. If 3 billion people each made a difference in one person’s life…”


The measure is not the number but the willingness, she says. “How can I do the most with what I was gifted? I was provided with an opportunity to help 85 million. But if I had been gifted to help 10 and I said, ‘But I can’t help 85 million, so I won’t,’ then I would have been wrong.


“We have an obligation because we’re all humans living on one small planet, to do as much as we can with what we have.”


Cousin’s years on the front lines of famine and hunger have left an indelible mark. Among the most unshakeable memories, visiting a refugee camp in Ethiopia where mothers fleeing violence across the border from South Sudan had arrived with their starving children.


“I heard a wail that pierced the air,” she recalls. The cry came from a mother who had walked with her children for five days to reach safety, trying to sustain them on the way by feeding them lily pads. That hadn’t been enough for her smallest child, less than a year old, who had just died in the camp. It’s a story that can sadly be repeated too many times. “And every child we lose is a stain on all of us,” Cousin says.


A hopeful future
Having spent years addressing the problem, Cousin is now looking at prevention. Food Systems for the Future is working in Rwanda to help develop the poultry industry by increasing the production of eggs and reducing their cost. That involves investment along the whole supply chain, from feed companies to hatcheries, from postproduction to distribution and sales.


Domestically, the focus is on companies primarily owned by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs who have grown beyond the startup stage but are caught in “the messy middle” of inadequate capital or operational support to go to the next level.


“What is exciting is there’s so much interest in addressing the wealth gap in the Black community that we have asset owners or investors who are working with us to assist these companies because they recognize the value of addressing the challenges of nutrition,” she says. “They want a return on their dollars, but they also want to see the possibilities for reducing the wealth gap by creating resilient businesses that are owned by Black and Latinx founders.”


Given the enduring scale of the global problem, is she hopeful that there will ever be a day when no one has to go to bed with an empty stomach? Yes, she says, describing herself as both an optimist and a pragmatist (because until those who use hunger as “a weapon of war” are prosecuted, it’s always going to occur where there is conflict).

“But what keeps me hopeful is that there are people who don’t turn away,” she says, noting how hunger organizations saw an increase in donations during the pandemic. “We live in one of the most generous countries in the world, where people come out and volunteer and care and do the things that are necessary to provide the access to food that their neighbors need, that their communities require.”

Cousin was encouraged to see candidates in the 2020 election making hunger and malnutrition a campaign issue. She has also found hope in agricultural developments that are increasing food quality and the quantity of yields.

“We know that ending hunger is complicated,” she says. It’s not just about distributing a lot more food: It’s about ensuring that people have the jobs that they need to afford the food… access to education so they can build careers that provide them with the economic tools they need to support their families.

“As long as people care,” she says, “as long as we not only donate but use our right to vote, our economic power, our intellectual power, to ensure that not just I have what I need, but that my neighbor does— and my neighbor that I can’t see around the world also continues to have what they need… as long as you have people who say, ‘What can I do?’ I will forever remain hopeful.”

Learning to care

The seeds of Ertharin Cousin’s passion to end others’ hunger pangs were sown in her as a child, growing up on Chicago’s West Side, where “food was central to who we are, how we define ourselves.” Mom was a social worker and dad a community organizer (“before Barack Obama made it popular”).

Serving the community was just a family trait, she says, recalling the supply of bats and balls and jump ropes her mother would have for Lawndale neighborhood kids to sign out and bring back (“everybody did”). “We lived in a house where you always cooked more food than what you needed because anyone who came over was offered a meal.” The family also had a restaurant, which never made any money because they always fed anyone who was hungry for free.

Cousin identifies her mom as her most significant waymaker. “She was the first person who recognized that I had gifts that I, as a child and even as a young adult, could not see. And so she continued to not just encourage me, but to sacrifice herself to ensure that I received the tutoring that I needed, the support that I needed.”

You need people in your life that give you the ability to fail, a place to cry and get a hug when you need it.

“I always tell people, ‘You know, whether you have a mother like mine or not, you need a safety net,’” she says. “‘You need people in your life that give you the ability to fail, a place to cry and get a hug when you need it.’ She was that safety net and continues in that role today. You would only fall so far because she was always there to catch us.”

A Reformer on Rest

Quick-fire questions on personal renewal and places of interest…

What makes for a relaxing day for you?
Get up in the morning, do yoga and just read: I’m an avid reader. I read so much nonfiction that when I have a day where I can just veg out, I will get a romance novel or historical fiction and sit and read from cover to cover. I call it bubble gum for the brain; it gives the ability to transport you for the entire day.

Do you have a bucket list?
I’ve had the privilege to travel to a long list of places I can’t wait to go back to without an agenda, just to truly see them. I have people in every single one of these places who I want to show me their country and not be part of some tourist group.

What do you have on repeat play?
I’m so old school I still listen to vinyl. I have been playing a lot of Ella Fitzgerald; young Ella. One of my favorite albums is Ella in Berlin; oh my, you can just listen to it all afternoon.

Andy Butcher is editorial director of WayMaker Journal.