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International leader visits CHSAS

Dr. Jacques Diouf of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

The head of an international organization dedicated to ending hunger worldwide visited the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) on July 1 ,2010.

Dr. Jacques Diouf, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, toured the school and visited with students, faculty, alumni and Chicago Public School administrators.

Although Diouf has traveled extensively throughout his career and visited many universities in the United Nations' 191 member countries, CHSAS is the first high school he has toured in his professional capacity. It was also his first visit to Chicago as director general, he said.

"I am thrilled to see young people, for you are the present and the future, and it's what you will be committed to that will change things," Diouf said during a reception in the school's farmstand. "Young people are the solution to the problems' "they are the ones who will take over."

The meeting was facilitated by Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, who suggested a visit to the school following Diouf's attendance at a conference in Chicago earlier in the day. Cousin, formerly of Chicago, was the guest commencement speaker at CHSAS several years ago and remains in contact with Marc Schulman, co-chair of the school's business advisory council.

Founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 at the urging of his wife, Eleanor, the FAO is currently headquartered in Rome and serves as a forum for nations to negotiate agreements and debate policy in an effort to help the 1 billion hungry people worldwide.

"We focus on food security in the world—how to help countries that aren't producing enough food and try to help them with policies, programs and plans to improve the lives of their people," Diouf said. "We deal with crops, animal husbandry, fisheries and aquaculture, and forestry. Our job is knowledge and the collection and dissemination of information."

Advising nations on how to produce food without forgetting the consequences is another aspect of the organization.

"The word 'sustainability' came from UN documents," said Victoria Cooper, director of environmental technology at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. "It changed our whole dialogue and our whole vision."

While outreach is one of the organization's main functions, the lack of infrastructure in many developing countries for a farm-to-table food chain is one of the biggest obstacles in combating hunger, Diouf said. Knowledge is important, he said, but many countries need machines, roads, irrigation systems and storage facilities in order to produce their own food.

"The situation in the world is not very bright," Diouf said. "In developed countries, 2 to 4 percent of the population is producing enough food to feed the country and export food. In developing countries, 60 to 70 percent of the population is producing the food, but it's not enough to feed their populations. That's why we're fighting, to ensure that every human in the world has the possibility of enjoying food, which is a condition of existence, a condition of life."

During his guided tour of the campus, Diouf visited the school's barn, farm animals, fields, beehives, fish farm, workshop and food prep areas. Student tour guides, many from the school's "freshman connection" peer mentoring program, explained the facilities and course options available to them as students at CHSAS.

Diouf also spoke with alumni, such as Mike McMahon and Matt Basile, whose interest in agriculture was piqued by their experiences at CHSAS. Both McMahon and Basile are currently enrolled in the College of Agriculture at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

Basile, who was instrumental in forming the aquaponics program at CHSAS, said that the FAO Web site is his go-to source for research as a natural resources and environmental science major, with a concentration in fisheries and wildlife conservation.

"It's the biggest statistical database," Basile said. "To meet the director is pretty incredible."

Diouf, 71, a native of Senegal, Africa, said he enjoyed his visit at CHSAS.

"It's a very impressive setup, and I'm very encouraged by the inspiration of the students, their interest and their dedication," Diouf said. "They're a very vibrant group."

Diouf's visit to the school highlights the reputation of CHSAS as the "crown jewel of the city," said the Chicago Public School's Terrance Patterson, while it also demonstrates the school's commitment to educating children beyond the classroom, students said.

"It was definitely an eye-opener for me," said junior Abriel Brooks. "Agriculture is huge all over the world. But it really does bring people together, look who I just met."

This article, written by Caroline Connors, originally appeared in the July 7, 2010 online edition of The Beverly Review.
It is re-printed with permission.