Joan Gussow

Joan Dye Gussow

Ed. Notes- This following article was written by Joan Dye Gussow thirteen years ago and is even more relevant today than it was then.

Since schools are so much in the headlines today, we thought that those of us involved in the KIDS program could benefit from a "trip down memory lane."

The work we are doing today is even more important and relevant than ever.

KIDS Relevance:

Why "KIDS" Is More Than Ever Relevant To Our World...

By Joan Dye Gussow

Shortly before the last century ended, a traveler and writer named Pico Iyer wrote a memorable article in The Nation magazine titled "The Haiti Test." He was responding to conversations among his acquaintances and regular pronouncements from the likes of Bill Gates about the fact that the world was now one, wired together by the wonders of modern technology.

In response to this notion, Iyer says, he administers the Haiti test. He travels to Haiti "to remind myself (as it is easy to forget) that in most parts of the globe, World Phones, World Planes and the power of the World Wide Web are no more on people's minds than they were a decade (or a century) ago. In fact the world could be said to be growing less and less connected, if only because the gap between the few of us who babble about the wiring of the planet and the billions who do not grows ever more alarming."

As in Haiti, poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where per capita annual income is less than $400, where 117 of every 1000 children born die before the age of five and undernutrition stunts one in three of the under-five survivors, where 60% of those over the age of 25 have never had a day of formal schooling and 40% of the schools have no actual buildings. Raised among i-Pods and virtual reality and ubiquitous cell phones that take pictures, realities like these are harder than ever to remember. This is why we need KIDS.

KIDS is devoted to helping children break through the buzzing surface that surrounds them and learn, when they are young enough to remember it for life, that hunger and poverty exist, even when they are not visible everyday. Ten years ago, when Jane Levine and Larry Levine decided they wanted to find a way to teach U.S. youngsters about hunger on the planet and began to develop KIDS, they asked Jane's cousin, Stephanie Kempf, a teacher in New York City, to write a series of lesson plans that teachers might use to help young people learn about the existence of hunger in the world without at the same time leaving them feeling helpless. The manuscript for the manual was sent to me for a "blurb."

I thought the subject was vitally important, so I said "yes," but I confess to having doubts about what I was about to read. On various occasions I had worked, with educators trying to design lessons that could teach hunger without teaching despair, so I knew it was hard. But when I began working my way through what was titled Finding Solutions to Hunger: Kids Can Make A Difference (FSTH) I was blown away.

I tell this old story partly as an excuse for quoting here what I wrote in 1996 about the manual and about the entire KIDS enterprise that had produced it: "If I were a teacher," I wrote, "struggling to help students remain human in a sea of cynicism and self-absorption, I would grasp onto this slim volume as if it were a life raft and use it to bring my class to shore."

It would be nice to hope that in the years since that was written, our nation's cynicism and self-absorption had abated, that children were routinely schooled about the injustices and inequalities that keep so many of the world's kids hungry. It would be deeply satisfying to say that as a result of educational efforts by KIDS and others, our rich-nation isolation had been overcome, and that our children now regularly learned from the people around them how dangerous and unacceptable (and unnecessary) were the monstrous wealth disparities between us and much of the rest of the world.

The fact that none of this has happened, the fact that, given the opportunity, I would write the same comment again if FSTH hit my desk this morning should not be read as an indication that KIDS has failed at the task it set itself. It seems inescapably evident that the world into which our young people grow up today is more dedicated than ever to self-indulgence, over-consumption, mock reality and greed than was the case when the first edition of FSTH was published. And yet, as any reader of the KIDS Newsletter can attest, there are vital pockets of difference, many of them created by KIDS, working like yeast around the country.

Change begins small and happens slowly. In a time when marketers are busy promoting over-consumption to the vulnerable child market, young people need all the help they can get figuring out what they might do -- "besides shopping at the mall -- "that might make a difference. Across the country, in all kinds of settings, and with children of many ages, teachers are using the resources of KIDS to help children find a responsible answer to that question. Those are the children whom we need to hope will be the leaders of tomorrow's world.

Joan Dye Gussow is an author, serious food grower, and Professor Emerita of Nutrition and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University She is a member of the KIDS Advisory Board. Joan Dye Gussow may be contacted at

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