Taking on the World

Local physicians are reducing hunger on the home front and beyond.

In 1991, Michael Altamura, M.D., a urologist living in Croton-on-Hudson, felt compelled to action by something he had read. “Somewhere I read that every ten seconds three children die of hunger or a hunger-related disease,” he recalls. “I was shocked! I had no idea that the death toll from hunger was that high.”

After research, Dr. Altamura discovered that “there were doctors’ organizations whose goal was to deliver healthcare to the indigent, but there was no group whose goal was to eliminate or reduce world hunger.” He decided to start such an organization himself. “I felt that doctors who care about people’s health would be interested in something that would prevent people from dying from hunger.”

With several local doctors, Dr. Altamura formed the board of directors for his new organization, Physicians Against World Hunger (PAWH). His original idea was bold: a mass mailing to the approximately 500,000 doctors in the United States, asking them to devote a single day’s income to ending world hunger. Dr. Altamura thought that this could be a way to raise millions of dollars. However, the fledging organization soon realized a discouraging reality of direct mail fundraising— high costs with little response.

PAWH decided to start smaller by focusing on Westchester. And for the past 19 years, the group has hosted a major annual fundraiser at the Westchester Broadway Dinner Theater in the spring. After paying theater costs, PAWH has been able to raise an average of $25,000 per year from ticket sales and donations. In 2010, the organization initiated a second annual fundraising event, a wine tasting.

PAWH is an organization run entirely by volunteers. After routine expenses, such as for a telephone, printing, mailings, Web site maintenance and the underlying theater costs, all funds go directly to organizations involved in ending world hunger. Nothing is spent on salaries.

Over the years, two popular methods of eliminating hunger have been credit with education programs administered by Freedom from Hunger and microlending. The basic concept is summarized by the well-known Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In addition, funds have been given to Oxfam to buy malaria nets in Africa and allow food relief after the tsunami in Asia and hurricane Katrina in the United States. Another recipient of PAWH funds has been Ashwini Hospital, a hospital in India that delivers care to tribal groups in India marginalized by mainstream society.

Likewise, small loans, often less than $40, are made to women to start or maintain small businesses like those involving weaving, roadside stands and sales of eggs, dairy and vegetable goods. The women meet weekly or monthly to choose new loan recipients. They gradually pay back their own loans while learning about important health issues, such as why to boil water, breastfeed instead of use formula and ensure that people receive vaccinations. Loans help confirm that the money generated by small businesses goes to feed families.

The vast majority of loans are repaid. The model has been quite successful and copied in many countries. Plus, principles of basic hygiene are disseminated through credit with education. Credit with education is now considered one of the most effective ways to break the hunger cycle. PAWH has contributed to these programs in Africa, South America and Asia.

More recently, with the economic downturn and the rise of hunger in the United States, PAWH has turned attention to problems at home. For the past two years the organization has contributed funds to the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless, which supports food banks and other groups that seek to alleviate hunger in Westchester.

In October 2010, PAWH conducted a successful wine tasting in Peekskill for fundraising. The organization is hosting another fundraiser this spring at the Westchester Broadway Dinner Theater in Elmsford. For further information or to contribute, visit www.pawh.org.