Editor's note: World Food Program USA is a sponsor of Planet Forward. Our Correspondent reached out to the subject of this piece, who is employed by this sponsor, on his own to tell her story.
M.J. Altman uncovers the hidden human stories about people and food on the frontlines of hunger in her podcast called “Hacking Hunger.” As editorial director at World Food Program USA, she also oversees the organization’s multimedia projects, op-eds and communications outreach. Her previous work experience includes writer-reporter for Time Magazine and public affairs producer at the Smithsonian Institution.
Altman’s podcast features interviews with aid workers and families in the field who are involved with the World Food Program in some way. “Hacking Hunger” is currently in its second season and was downloaded more than 10,000 times since starting last year.
For Altman, “Hacking Hunger” is more than just one aspect of her role at WFP USA. She elaborated on that in a conversation with Planet Forward:
Q: Has your work with global hunger issues changed the way you perceive food?
A: One thousand times yes. It has changed the way I look at food in so many ways. A third of the food grown globally is wasted and if we didn’t waste that food we could feed most of the hungry people on the planet, which is mind boggling and it’s developed countries like the U.S. that are responsible for a lot of it.
I’m very conscientious about throwing out food. I’m that person where if it’s a half eaten sandwich, I’m asking for a to go box.
Q: “Hacking Hunger” has been going on for some time. Have you noticed an impact?
A: This upcoming episode on South Sudan will be the 18th one. We’ve changed a lot. I won’t lie we dove into this not really knowing what we were doing. The podcast actually raised $25,000, which was huge for us because knowing that with that money you can feed 100,000 people really makes the project even more worthwhile.
Q: In January’s episode of “Hacking Hunger,” you said, “I dove in headfirst without knowing exactly what I wanted Hacking Hunger to be.” What was your mindset in early episodes of the podcast?
A: You're in D.C., it’s such a bubble and we didn’t want to be lending our microphones to people who already have a platform. So I found personally that the episodes I did with people that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard from like an Ethiopian donor who crowdsourced Facebook support for the drought relief in his homeland, those are the stories that really moved me and those are the stories that really moved our listeners.
We realized we had to go deeper. We weren’t aiming to get people like Nicholas Kristof on the podcast. We wanted the everyday Rwandan student who was a refugee, received food from the World Food Program and later became an agricultural student in the U.S. That’s the story we wanted to tell. Those really hidden human stories and I think that was a huge revelation for us.
Q: In January’s episode you also said, “I didn’t sound like myself and it took 12 episodes before I could start to find my real voice.”
Q: What did you mean by real voice?
A: If you go back and listen to the early episodes I sound different because I had an idea of how a podcast should sound. I was channeling Diane Rehm. So I’m talking in a very soft, just the intonation of my voice, whereas if you know me I’m a pretty loud and outspoken person.
When you’re writing a podcast script it can start to sound really stilted and dry so what I’m really hoping with this second season is that it’s a little more conversational, it sounds just a little more natural.
Q: Are there any other interviewers besides Diane Rehm that you have learned from?
A: Doing a lot of the interviews over Skype because we’re talking to people in Juba, South Sudan, and Iraq is really difficult because you don’t have the face-to-face interaction. You’re not able to read someone’s expressions and get a sense of, “OK are they comfortable with this question?” I think listening to “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross has been really illuminating and just other podcasts where people act like themselves.
Q: How have your previous experiences like working as a public affairs producer at the Smithsonian Institute influenced your work on the podcast?
A: My experience, both reporting at Time and working at the Smithsonian’s American Museum, taught me the importance of perspectives. When I was at Time I had the opportunity to put together a special anniversary package on the Iraq war and for that I interviewed an aid worker, a Wisconsin senator, a documentary filmmaker and a soldier. I got very different run downs of what the war had been like. It was just a reminder of how everyone has a different view of what’s happening in the world and the same was true at the Smithsonian.
It was a reminder that you can’t make assumptions. We’re always learning and there are just a lot of unreported stories and unreported voices and perspectives that even though we don’t hear them doesn’t mean they don’t exist and aren’t important.
Q: Do you still consider yourself a journalist?
A: I don’t think I do because I have a bias right? I love the World Food Program. I love the mission. I feel I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania and Bangladesh. I’ve seen WFP’s impact and interviewed families first hand.
I have an agenda and my agenda is to hopefully share that passion with my listeners and get them to understand why this is so important, why they can join this mission, whether it’s listening to the podcast or sharing it with family or a friend, or donating $10 after an episode. I come into it with a deliberate purpose of I want to get you on my team.
Q: Jane Pauley, the anchor of CBS News Sunday Morning said, “The shows I really admire like ‘Oprah’ and ‘Ellen’ are distinctly like their hosts. So I think my show will be successful only if we try to stay consistent to my own sense of myself.” Do you see “Hacking Hunger” as a reflection of yourself?
A: I’m starting to. I think because of my journalism background, you’re not supposed to put yourself in the story, or at least traditionally the idea isn’t to be overly narcissistic and just see the world through the lens of your own past experiences. But I am starting to realize that there are experiences I can share with listeners that make them know me more and the importance of building that relationship.
I started the South Sudan episode by telling a story about being in Tanzania and meeting a 10-month-old baby who was basically starving to death. It’s an experience that changed my outlook on life so much. It haunts me to this day. It always will and it always should. So I shared that in the beginning just because I think fortunately most people are never going to have that experience of meeting a child like that who has been without food for so long that they can’t be saved. I hope that in sharing that people understand my personal investment to this particular story in South Sudan.
Q: You’ve elaborated on your personal investment and a lot of the significant issues behind global hunger, but has anyone ever told you to focus on what they believed were more important or pressing issues?
A: Luckily, I have a really supportive group of family and friends. My husband over Christmas announced to my whole family, “Did you guys hear that ‘Hacking Hunger’ raised $25,000? Oh my gosh!” It was kind of embarrassing, but here at World Food Program USA we get comments like, what about hunger in the U.S.? That’s one of the big pushbacks.
I understand that perspective because we do have hunger in this country, but I think it’s important to realize it’s not always a zero sum game. The extent and the scale and the severity of hunger in a place like South Sudan is so much worse than we see in this country. It has implications for people in the U.S. even if they don’t realize it.
Hunger feeds on violence and instability and spreads. It’s like a virus. If we have the ability to feed a hungry person, we should. If we have the capacity to save a life, we should. Even beyond that there are really very serious economic development and national security consequences for ignoring a famine on the other side of the world.
Q: Are there any episodes of Hacking Hunger you wish you could change?
A: We always want to have more voices of people who are impacted by hunger and that’s really hard to do not just because of the logistics of getting a recorder to a remote village in Syria, but because of the language issues and access generally.
There was an episode we did on this really incredible miracle crop called moringa. It’s coming to the U.S. and it’s helping smallholder farmers in Ghana. We didn’t get a chance to talk to a farmer in Ghana who has seen her family’s income triple because she started growing this really nutritious, hearty and drought-resistant crop. So there are a lot of examples from last season where I wish we could have heard first hand from the people who are growing these crops or are experiencing hunger, not just the aid workers.
Q: How has the podcast influenced your perception of hunger?
A: Before I started working here I didn’t have an appreciation of hunger and how much of a problem it is, but also how solvable it is. It’s a paradox. We’re growing enough food in the world to feed everybody and make sure everybody is healthy. The problem is access. People live in remote villages that don’t have roads or they’re not able to get the farming equipment and the financial capital they need to make their farms successful.
This is maybe not a “sexy” topic, but I met a Wall Street Journal reporter named Roger Thurow — and maybe you’re familiar with him — but he covered agriculture for 20 years. It was market stuff and the developed world’s business side of agriculture and then he covered the famine in 2010 and ’11. He said it was a story he couldn’t walk away from. Thurow quit his job at the Wall Street Journal and now just reports on hunger full time. I think that is extraordinary.
Q: What does success look like for "Hacking Hunger"?
A: Success is literally anytime someone is moved by our podcast. If you listen to an episode and it opens your eyes to something you never thought about or it changes your perspective or just broadens your perspective, I feel like that’s a win. If you share it with family or friends, even better. If you donate after and you become a supporter of our organization or you become a supporter of any hunger nonprofit, that’s a win. But I think even just starting with if you listen, and you have something that you take away from it, then I feel it’s a success.