Professor bikes across U.S. to fight world hunger

Altman's bike ride was the centerpiece of Mazon's "Hunger Relief 2000/Bike Across America" campaign, which aims to raise public awareness about hunger and create a $1 million endowment fund.

It all began at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 6, when 150 people gathered to see Altman off during a ceremony on the center's front steps. Monty Hall emceed the event, and speakers included Rev. Leonard B. Jackson of the First AME Church and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who pledged $5 for each mile Altman rode — more than $15,000 — on behalf of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. After the festivities, 20 participants bicycled with Altman on the first leg of his journey, about 10 miles from the Skirball to the beach.

Then Altman, a professor at Wake Forest University Medical School in North Carolina, headed south on the Pacific Coast Highway toward Irvine, followed by the RV that was his home for the next seven weeks. It was driven by volunteers and stocked with high-calorie food and all-weather gear.

His southern, cross-country route took him through America's "hunger belt": Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, where he returned to his home in Greensboro.

Along the way, he spoke to more than 10,000 people about the estimated 840 million people worldwide who are hungry. He averaged 100 miles a day — over mountains and through wind, rain and snow — trying to consume enough calories, about 8,000 per day, to prevent his 135-pound frame from dropping more than 10 pounds.

Why was Altman willing to leave his wife and two daughters for nearly two months to fight hunger?

"In Judaism, we are mandated to help the stranger," he explained before departing. "In the Torah, that is mentioned 36 times, more than any other mitzvah."

The cross-country bike ride was part of Altman's journey to Judaism. Raised in a non-religious Jewish home in Utah, he enjoyed Jewish cultural activities but did not attend synagogue or celebrate his bar mitzvah.

As an adult, he embarked on a spiritual quest and dabbled in Chinese philosophy. The change came in the early 1990s, when Altman placed his daughters in a Jewish preschool and realized they knew more about Judaism than he. So he approached his local synagogue, learned to lay tefillin, speak Hebrew and read Torah. In his professional life, Altman, now a vice president of his Conservative congregation, continued to research issues with a social-action edge, such as the prevention of underage smoking and drinking.

The idea for the bike ride began in 1997, when Altman received a leadership development grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that allowed him to study hunger from Northern Ireland to the Mississippi delta. Biking against hunger, he decided, would become his special project.

Because he wanted a Jewish component, he hooked up with Mazon, the only national Jewish organization of its kind. Started in 1986, the agency has awarded $20 million to hunger relief groups. Altman has started an endowment for Mazon and hopes to raise $1 million.

Altman received an unexpected lesson about endurance during a survival training seminar in 1998, where he learned first-hand about hunger. He lived without food for days as his group trekked in the remote high desert near the Escalante area of Utah, without matches, blankets or tents.

"People were vomiting, hallucinating, crying, and I was angry, depressed and disoriented," he recalled. "And after just three days without food, I couldn't even function. I kept thinking about those skinny, short, hungry children I'd seen recently in Bangladesh. I wondered, 'What kind of a life is that?'"

During his cross-country sojourn, Altman's goal was to raise awareness about a disturbing paradox: While prosperity in America is at an all-time high, hunger rates remain steady.

At first glance, it appears that the soaring economy has been good for hunger relief; donations to anti-hunger groups interviewed by the L.A. Jewish Journal are up significantly this year. The country's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, has experienced a 20 percent increase in individual contributions. Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger lobbying group, is up 10 percent; Mazon is up 12 percent; and the L.A.-based Sova Kosher Food Pantry, a Jewish Federation-sponsored program of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, reports an 8 percent rise in contributions.

Nevertheless, 31 million Americans continue to face hunger each year, including one in six senior citizens. One in eight children under age 12 goes to bed hungry, and 20 percent of those who stand in line at soup kitchens are children, according to Deborah Leff, president and CEO of Second Harvest.

"The problem is that while more households have entered the work force, the take-home pay is often not enough to feed a family," explained Susan Cramer, Mazon executive director.

Altman said part of his "challenge" was to "draw attention to the issue of hunger. It's my own contribution, my own small way of doing something about the suffering."

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal