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Get Gore: Aid organization wants Al Gore to make their movie


A mother and her child eating Plumpy'nut supplied by ACF in TK. (Photo: ACF)

A mother and her child eating Plumpy'nut supplied by ACF in Karamoja, Uganda. (Photo: Tine Frank)

By JOEL MEARES

If you want Sean Penn in your movie, you will need a decent script. If you want Will Smith, you better have a spare $20 million. If want former Vice President Al Gore, you will need about 150,000 signatures and a pretty thick skin.

Action Against Hunger is aiming for both. Last week, ACF  (for the French, Action Contre Le Faim) launched its “Ask Al Gore” campaign. The online drive calls on Americans to sign a petition asking their former vice president to make a documentary with ACF called “No Hunger.” The organization believes that documentary could do for global malnutrition what Gore’s zeitgeist-shifting 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth” did for global warming.

ACF’s campaign has had success in the U.K., France and Spain; 68,000 people have signed on since the European launch in fall 2008. Stateside, however, asking Al Gore might be asking for trouble. Partisans, who’ve been sharpening their knives and tongues for Gore’s next move, and even some nutritionists concerned with the direction of the campaign, are already questioning the nonexistent film and its uncommitted star.

For those at ACF’s American headquarters, though, Gore was the perfect pursuit. “Al Gore is someone who transcends global borders,” says Elaine Ryan, who runs “Ask Al Gore” from ACF’s offices on West 37th Street. “He’s an international figure. People know him; some people like him, some people don’t like him. And that’s probably a good thing because they will be curious.”

Ryan says the link between global warming and malnutrition – shifts in drought patterns affecting farming and natural disasters cutting populations off from food supplies – will make a compelling case for Gore. “It’s almost like a sequel to ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” she says.

ACF, which has 6,000 field staff in 40 countries, hopes the get-Gore effort will draw people to the campaign Web site. There, they can view a mockup of a  “No Hunger” trailer and sign the petition ACF plans to hand Gore at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. If he signs on, it might just push acute malnutrition to the top of the global agenda.

Two young TK children eat Plumpy'nut. (Photo: ACF)

Two young Ugandan children eat Plumpy'nut. (Photo: Tine Frank)

Prevalent in sub-Saharan countries wracked with war, drought, poverty and HIV and AIDS, acute malnutrition can be diagnosed by measuring the circumference of a child’s upper arm. Anything less than 4.7 inches means a child is in danger of dying from acute malnutrition, where the body is so starved it begins to consume itself. It affects 55 million children under the age of five worldwide, according to the British medical journal “The Lancet,” and five million of those die through lack of access to treatment. In Somalia, where aid workers are increasingly the targets of wartime violence, agencies are pulling out of dangerous area and death rates among sufferers are climbing.

At the same time, developments in portable “ready-to-use therapeutic foods” (RUFT) have helped. RUFTs do not spoil, need no refrigeration and do not need to be mixed with potentially contaminated local water. They have made it easier for field workers to treat acute malnutrition at homes instead of in field hospitals. The RUFT Plumpy’Nut, a mix of peanut butter, powdered milk and powdered sugar, enriched with vitamins and minerals, can be squeezed out of its foil packet and eaten like paste.

It’s the harrowing statistics and hopeful developments that ACF wants Gore to help them put on the radar. Still, some are already questioning whether Gore might get in the way of that message in America.

Dennis Avery, head of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, a conservative think tank, says he understands the need to raise awareness of the global hunger problem. But the climate skeptic, who released the book “Unstoppable Global Warming” in 2006, says Gore’s ties to organic farming, including an upcoming line of frozen vegan foods, make him a questionable spokesman.

“Al Gore has always recommended organic farming,” says Avery, on the telephone from his office in Washington, D.C. The advocate of deregulated, high-yield-per-acre farming, says that lower-yield organic methods “starve two billion people” worldwide by reducing food production. “I think he should partner with Prince Charles to sell overpriced organic goodies to British consumers on a small scale.”

Avery’s suggested alternatives to Gore include Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Monsanto, which produces genetically engineered seeds that are themselves subject of controversy.

Dr. Kathryn Dewey, a professor of nutrition at UC Davis, applauds ACF for the initiative but hopes the campaign focuses equally on the prevention of acute malnutrition as well as the cure, or rescue, of those it afflicts.

Dewey, who has experience working with mothers and infants in developing nations, says preventing malnutrition before children reach two, which should include nutritional support for the mother during pregnancy, is a high priority and could greatly reduce the burden of acute malnutrition and the need for treatment.

“When I saw the video it was obviously put together very well to appeal to an audience,” says Dewey on the phone from California. “I certainly hope that if it draws people in that they then look at the bigger picture. A lot of us want to see advocacy turned around so that prevention is a much bigger part of that picture.”

Others want to see advocacy taken out of the hands of celebrities and put into the hands of the public.

When the “No Hunger” trailer was released in Spain in 2008, produced by the Madrid-based Shackleton Group, another Spanish media agency made a response film titled, “Do NOT Ask Al Gore.” Small studio Hibrida’s film ends with the words, “Yes, YOU can do it.”

“We found the Action Against Hunger campaign very provocative and attractive,” David Munoz, Hibrida’s director and producer, wrote in an e-mail from Madrid. “I think it is a very good idea and, eventually, if the film was made by Al Gore, it would have an constructive impact too. But we don’t only need world stars to make useful films for our society. We can and must work on that ourselves too.”

We might have to. There is still no indication from Gore that he is willing to step in front of the camera again.

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Shock subway campaign warns of the dangers of sugary drinks


By JOEL MEARES

One of three new posters in NYC subways highlighting the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks. (Courtesy of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)

One of three new posters in NYC subways highlighting the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks. (Photo: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)

Subway commuters are this month faced with posters featuring soda, iced tea and a “sports” drink congealing into veiny human fat as they are poured into a glass. The ads ask, “Are you pouring on the pounds?” They then suggest: “Go with water, seltzer or low-fat milk instead.”

The Health Department’s director of physical and nutrition programs, Cathy Nonas, says the $277,000 campaign will first shock, then teach. “For those of you who had no idea you could be consuming 51 teaspoons of sugar and 500 to 700 calories just from drinking two to three sweetened beverages, now you know,” says Nonas.

It’s the latest public service campaign using the subway to change New Yorkers’ bad habits, joining the likes of graphic anti-smoking drives. The new ads began appearing in 1,500 subway cars last week and will be there for three months, courtesy of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They aim to get commuters looking up, around and learning. But similar campaigns have met with varying levels of success in recent years.

Bart Robbett, who has created subway ads at Robbett Advocacy Media for 20 years, says subway campaigns work if they fit into their environment.  “Subway ads need to cut through the clutter,” says Robbett, who teaches strategies of political communication in the Elections and Campaign Management Program at Fordham University. “They should channel the emotions, whether it be anger, fear or humor. Then they must have a very clear call to action.”

He cites the Department of Homeless Service’s eye-catching drive from last year as an effective campaign. The ads featured black-and-white portraits of the city’s homeless along with the line “Give the Homeless the Kind of Change They Can Really Use.” The poster then urges riders to call 311 for a team to assist a homeless person.

The Department of Homeless Services says they have had a significant response to this campaign, launched in subway trains and stations last year, and relaunched this July. (Courtesy of the Department of Homeless Services)

This campaign, launched in subway trains and stations last year, was relaunched this July. (Photo: Department of Homeless Services)

“In fiscal year 2009, 311 received an average of 20 calls per day, requesting that outreach teams be deployed,” says department spokeswoman Kristy Buller. Though she was unable to supply similar data for the previous year, Buller says that the 2009 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) counted 2,328 homeless people in the city, a 47 percent reduction from 2005. Combined with other efforts in the department and throughout the city, the ad is having an impact, enough so that one the department relaunched it this July with 2,400 posters in trains and 400 larger posters in stations.

In 2007, as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s aggressive attack on smoking, subway riders were reintroduced to Ronaldo Martinez, who lost his larynx to throat cancer and who was featured in a series of anti-smoking TV spots in 2000. In a new set of subway ads, Martinez faced viewers directly while pressing a microphone to his throat. The poster read, “Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.”

The campaign was part of a large-scale TV, subway, print and online campaign that some say has helped to drive New York’s smoking rates to their lowest on record: Fewer than 1 million adult smokers in the city, according to the Health Department. But the campaign also featured a three-week giveaway of patches and nicotine gum, and, in the same period, state and federal taxes pushed cigarette prices to an unprecedented average of $9 a pack.

Unlike anti-smoking campaigns, there will be no accompanying tax hike to the new sugary beverage campaign — an 18 percent state tax increase on sugary drinks was nixed early this year, though the idea is not completely dead — no television ads and no free patches to help the over two million New Yorkers, who, according to the Health Department, drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day.

Robbett worries that the lesson may not get through. He says the “Are you pouring on the pounds?” campaign connects on an emotional level — “self-consciousness and a degree of disgust” — but faces a rougher track than past campaigns. Putting down the bottle is sometimes harder than picking up the phone, either to call 311 for a free pack of gum or to report a homeless person.

He points out that unlike the homelessness and anti-smoking ads, which feature a slab of text explaining the problem, there is nothing similar on the new posters to explain the calorie content of the drinks and its links to obesity. “And to get people to change their behavior, it’s a tough sell,” he says.

Nonas agrees. “The campaign aims to educate. At the end of the day what you do with your body is up to you.”

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