PORTLAND — Even as people go hungry, 40 percent of the food produced in the United States every year goes to waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And the U.S. is not the only country where this is an issue.

That’s why a coalition of universities from across the country have partnered with the World Food Program at the United Nations to come up with innovative solutions and effective action against hunger.

Now, for the first time, the Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit will be held in Maine.

The University of Southern Maine is hosting the three-day gathering March 14-16 on its Portland campus. Registration is now closed, but organizers are expecting more than 500 students, faculty and activists to attend.

The summit is being co-sponsored by the Food Studies Program at USM, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and the Maine Campus Compact.

“No one person, nation, organization, or university can solve the critical issues of hunger and malnutrition. But working together, we can,” the Universities Fighting World Hunger website states.

The coalition’s goal is to inspire and encourage students in all disciplines to learn about the root causes of hunger and then come up with possible solutions that can be effectively implemented.

“In order to solve the problem of world hunger, we have to reach out to the leaders of tomorrow,” said Frank Wertheim, an agriculture educator with the UMaine Cooperative Extension and a key organizer of the upcoming summit.

“A lot of college students are already interested in community engagement and making a difference,” he said. “What we hope to do is inspire that passion and channel that into action. We can’t donate our way out of (food insecurity), so ultimately changes in policy will be necessary.”

“Part of what we’re looking at is where food comes from and how it’s distributed,” Wertheim said. “We have enough food, it’s just a problem of access (and cost). There’s no question we need to look at this issue comprehensively and (build) political will.”

Speakers at the world hunger summit include the founder of the ICare Food Bank in Lagos, Nigeria; Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First; and Roger Thurow, author of “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.”

In addition, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and USM President Glenn Cummings are also scheduled to give remarks.

Food insecurity is defined as an “economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And data shows that 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure.

“Food insecurity is all around us, whether it is in our community or on our college campuses. Its effects are adverse, and it is our collective duty to come up with strategies to end hunger in our world,” the Universities Fighting World Hunger website says.

Wertheim said the issue of food insecurity has only increased over time, with demand continually going up at local food pantries and soup kitchens. “We’re trending in the wrong direction,” he said, with Maine annually being in the top percent of states with the most people facing hunger.

Wertheim attended his first Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit 10 years ago, calling the event “a real eye-opener” and “a game changer” in terms of what’s possible when it comes to addressing food insecurity.

When he came back from that first summit, for instance, Wertheim worked with others to launch the Maine Hunger Dialogue, which is designed to create effective, community-supported hunger-alleviation projects.

After four successful years, Wertheim said Maine Hunger Dialogue organizers felt they were ready to host a Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit.

He called the summit “all about networking and learning from others,” with the hope that attendees will leave armed with new ideas, goals and game plans ready to implement. In addition, sponsors of the summit also offer mini-grants to provide financial support for new initiatives.

This is similar to what happens at the annual Maine Hunger Dialogue conference, Wertheim said, adding, “I’ve seen past (dialogue) participants launch some amazing projects and programs.”

For example, he said last year a student at the University of Southern Maine created a local chapter of The Campus Kitchens Project.

Started this past fall, the chapter works with the dining hall to recover leftover food and transform it into hot, nutritious meals to deliver to the Portland Boys & Girls Club.

Such actions are “extremely meaningful,” Wertheim said, and what makes it even more special is seeing college students take on leadership roles when it comes to the issue of food recovery and food insecurity.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

USM food studies intern Caleb Dolloff works in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Harvest for Hunger plot at Tidewater Farm in Falmouth. Produce from the plot is donated to Wayside Evening Soup Kitchen in Portland.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 40 percent of the food produced in this country is wasted.

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