20 athletes working toward a better food system

Athletes are acutely aware of the power that food has over the human body. As paragons of health, they know that proper nutrition and access to healthy food play an enormous part in a person’s ability to reach her or his full potential.

When they’re not training or competing, many of them are doing their part to make sure that no one is limited by hunger, malnutrition, or obesity-related health problems. In a world where at least one billion people go hungry every day and more than one billion suffer from overweight or obesity, this is no small fight.

The athletes included on the list are using their celebrity off the field, rink, and court to bring attention to problems in the food system across the world. From an entire hockey team to a single tennis player, each is fighting to make sure that access to food and good nutrition aren’t privileges for a few, but a basic human right for all.

This list is only a small representation of the efforts that athletes around the world are making to fight hunger, malnutrition, and obesity. Who else would you recommend?

  1. Muhammad Ali, former boxer, United States – The Muhammad Ali Center, founded by Ali and his wife, Yolanda Williams Ali, promotes the principles of “Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality.” Schools or other organisations can apply for the 2013 Muhammad Ali Center Peace Garden Grant to build their own gardens, giving children the experience of growing their own fruits and vegetables.
  2. Athletes for Oxfam: Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, American football players, United States – Boldin and Fitzgerald, wide receivers for the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, have traveled to Ethiopia and Senegal with Oxfam to witness firsthand these countries’ struggles with food security and the damage done by extractive industries. Both have spoken up in both the media and political arenas to bring an end to these injustices.
  3. Roberto Baggio, former football (soccer) player, Italy – Baggio was appointed a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Goodwill Ambassador in 2002, and his commitment to social causes has been commemorated with the World Peace Award, bestowed by Nobel Peace Prize laureates. He supports the Professional Football Against Hunger campaign, and has visited FAO field projects in Laos and Peru.
  4. David Beckham, football (soccer) player, United Kingdom – Beckham was appointed a U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador in 2005 with a special focus on UNICEF’s Sport for Development program. Beckham has traveled to visit children in food insecure communities, including a trip to Sierra Leone in 2008. His visit supported the launch of UNICEF 2008 State of the World’s Children Report , which focused on child mortality and malnutrition, and brought worldwide coverage to the issue. In August 2012, Beckham – with other athletes, including Roberto Baggio and Raul Gonzalez Blanco, petitioned U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to use the U.K.’s publicity during the Olympic Games to address child hunger and malnutrition.
  5. Luol Deng, basketball player, Sudan – Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng, a native of Sudan, has worked to raise awareness of the crisis in Sudan in partnership with the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP). The Luol Deng Foundation, whether in its work in Africa or Chicago, focuses on support and education to help solve the problems of hunger and poverty.
  6. Detroit Lions: Through their Lunch with the Lions and Meet Up and Eat Up programs, the Lions help underprivileged youth and their families gain access to nutritious, fresh, and healthy foods. The Lions are currently partnered with Eastern Market, and will soon additionally undertake a partnership with the Fair Food Network.
  7. Mo Farah, Olympic distance runner, United Kingdom – The Mo Farah Foundation aims to provide aid for the victims of famine in Somalia, the country of Farah’s birth. The foundation is working with partners and local communities to set up emergency response, water and sanitation, health and medical, livelihood, and education programs in Somalia.
  8. Raul Gonzalez Blanco, football (soccer) player, Spain – Gonzalez Blanco was appointed an FAO Goodwill Ambassador in 2004, because, in his own words, “[…] the suffering of any human being diminishes all of us, it’s our responsibility to try to ease that suffering.” Gonzalez Blanco’s contributions have included visiting FAO field projects in Senegal and in Chad, the latter visit including an urgent appeal for funding amidst the food security crisis in the Sahel. He has also lent his voice to the Professional Football Against Hunger campaign.
  9. Hamilton Against Hunger, college athletic association, United States – Hamilton College student athletes started contributing to the Utica Rescue Mission years ago. Hamilton teams take turns collecting leftover food from the dining hall, package and freeze it, and donate it to the Utica Rescue Mission. This initiative is completely run by students.
  10. Harvard Women’s Hockey Team, college hockey team, United States – The distinguished university’s women’s hockey team created “HH Fights Hunger” and raised more than $1,500 for Project Bread. Last year alone, Project Bread-funded organizations provided 61 million meals to hungry people. HH Fights Hunger participated in the Walk for Hunger.
  11. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, former Olympic track and field star, United States – Joyner-Kersee, six-time Olympic medal winner and Sports Illustrated’s “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century,” has been extremely active in raising awareness of the importance of nutrition and a healthy diet since her retirement from track and field. In addition to having consulted the St. Louis School District 189 on incorporating nutrition and wellness into its curriculum and contributing her voice to the “High Five, Low Fat” educational media project, she was recently involved in the Triple Play Fit Family Challenge with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, a competition to teach families to improve their diets and fitness.
  12. Martina Navratilova, former tennis player and coach, Czech Republic – Navratilova, six-time ITF World Champion and and seven-time WTA Player of the Year, is an AARP Ambassador of Fitness. She has advocated publicly for the benefits of a plant-based diet, and has released a number of other videos  explaining the positive impact that a healthy diet can have on a person’s lifestyle.
  13. New York Islanders, hockey team, United States – For the past few years, the New York Islanders, one of the state’s professional hockey teams, has partnered with Long Island food bank Island Harvest for a holiday food drive. Island Harvest repurposes food that would otherwise have been thrown away from grocery and convenience stores, and donates it to families in need.
  14. New York Yankees, baseball team, United States – The Yankees sponsor the Healthy Home Plate Program, which teaches youth between the ages of 12 and 15 in the New York area to prepare healthy meals for themselves, and to incorporate knowledge of nutrition and a balanced diet into their daily lives. The program includes educational sessions with nutritionists, the opportunity to use restaurant kitchens for cooking lessons, and access to fresh, healthy ingredients.
  15. Rugby World Cup Sevens, rugby championship, international – This year marks the tenth year of WFP’s partnership with the International Rugby Board in a campaign called Tackle Hunger. The campaign uses events such as the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens to promote awareness of hunger and the WFP’s efforts to combat it.
  16. Paul Tergat, long distance runner, Kenya – Tergat, who struggled with hunger during his childhood in Kenya, benefited firsthand from WFP’s free lunch program. Now that he is a champion marathon runner, he has used his fame to promote the cause of the WFP from his position as WFP Ambassador Against Hunger, which he has held since 2004.
  17. Hannah Teter, professional snowboarder, United States – Teter, a Vermont native, uses profits from her maple syrup brand and contest winnings to support sustainable farming initiatives in Kirindon, Kenya. Her donations have helped to pay for seeds, fertilizers, and farming tools for the community.
  18. Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), football (soccer) coalition, European Union – In 2009, the UEFA published Eat for Goals, a kid-friendly cookbook in which 13 European football players each share their favorite healthy recipes. The cookbook is intended to encourage children to develop healthy eating habits.
  19. Will Witherspoon, American football player, United States – Witherspoon, a linebacker for the St. Louis Rams, runs Shire Gate Farm in Missouri, where he practices humane and ecologically responsible farming. He raises cattle and other livestock in environmentally sustainable ways.
  20. LaMarr Woodley, American football player, United States – Woodley, along with fellow Pittsburgh Steelers, teams up with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank  to hold an annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway to over 200 families in need in Hazelwood, a low-income neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Each year, more Steelers join Woodley in his campaign to feed those in need.

Danielle Nierenberg is the co-Founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank; Eve Andrews is a Research Associate with Food Tank.

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