Altman's bikeride is the centerpiece of MAZON's "Hunger Relief 2000/Bike Across America" campaign, which aims to raise public awareness about hunger and create a $1 million endowment fund. MAZON is a Los Angeles-based agency that has awarded $20 million to hunger relief groups since 1986.
It all began at the Skirball Cultural Center Sunday, Feb. 6, when 150 people turned out to see Altman off during a ceremony on the center's front steps. Monty Hall emceed the event, and speakers included Rev. Leonard B. Jackson of the First AME Church and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who pledged $5 for each mile Altman rides -- more than $15,000 -- on behalf of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. After the festivities, 20 participants bicycled with Altman on the first leg of his journey, about 10 miles from the Skirball to the beach.
Then, the Wake Forest University Medical School professor was off down PCH to Irvine, followed by the RV that will be his home for the next eight weeks, driven by volunteers and stocked with high-calorie food and all-weather gear. His Southern, cross-country route will take him through America's "hunger belt;" through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. Along the way, he will speak out about the estimated 840 million people worldwide who are hungry, even as he keeps up his gruelling pace of up to 120 miles a day, over mountains and through wind, rain and snow. He is hoping he can consume enough calories, about 8,000 per day, to prevent his 135 pound frame from dropping more than 10 pounds.
Why is Altman willing to leave his wife and two daughters behind for nearly two months to fight hunger? "In Judaism, we are mandated to help the stranger," he explained last week at a gathering of Sinai Akiba Academy middle school students in Westwood. "In the Torah, that is mentioned 36 times, more than any other mitzvah."
The cross-country bikeride is part of Altman's journey to Judaism. He was raised in a non-religious Jewish home in Utah, where he enjoyed Jewish cultural activities but did not attend synagogue or become bar mitzvah. As an adult, he embarked on a spiritual quest and dabbled in Chinese philosophy. The change came, in the early 1990s, when Altman placed his daughters in a Jewish pre-school and realized they knew more about Judaism than he did. He approached his local synagogue, learned to lay tefillin, speak Hebrew and read Torah. In his professional life, Altman, now a vice president of his Conservative shul, continued to research issues with a social action edge, such as the prevention of underage smoking and drinking.
The idea for the bikeride began in 1997, when Altman received a leadership development grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that allowed him to study hunger from Northern Ireland to the Mississippi delta. Biking against hunger, he decided, would become his special project. Because he wanted a Jewish component, he hooked up with MAZON, the only national Jewish organization of its kind. "I wanted to do something that would challenge me physically and mentally," he adds. "Though I was physically fit, I wasn't an experienced cyclist."
The professor received an unexpected lesson about endurance during a survival training seminar where he learned first-hand about hunger. He lived without food for days as his group trekked in the remote high desert near the Escalante area of Utah, without matches, blankets or tents.
"People were vomiting, hallucinating, crying, and I was angry, depressed and disoriented," he recalls of the summer 1998 trip. "And after just three days without food, I couldn't even function. I kept thinking about those skinny, short, hungry children I'd seen recently in Bangladesh. I wondered, 'What kind of a life is that?'"
During his cross-country sojourn, Feb. 6-March 24, Altman will raise awareness about a disturbing paradox: While prosperity in America is at an all-time high, hunger rates remain steady, sources told The Journal.
At first glance, it appears that the soaring economy has been good for hunger relief; donations to anti-hunger groups interviewed by The Journal are up significantly this year. The country's largest domestic hunger relief organization, America's Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, has experienced a 20 percent increase in individual contributions. Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger lobbying group, is up 10 percent; MAZON is up 12 percent; and the L.A.-based SOVA Kosher Food Panty, a Jewish Federation sponsored program of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, reports an 8 percent rise in contributions.
Nevertheless, 31 million Americans continue to face hunger each year, including one in six senior citizens. One in eight children under age 12 goes to bed hungry, and 20 percent of those who stand in line at soup kitchens are children, says Deborah Leff, president and CEO of America's Second Harvest.
"The problem is that while more households have entered the workforce, the take-home pay is often not enough to feed a family," explains Susan Cramer, executive director of MAZON, which helps fund the Gramercy Place Shelter of Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation.
Altman is hoping that his bikeride will help educate Americans about the persistent problem. "Part of my challenge is to draw attention to the issue of hunger," he says. "It's my own contribution, my own small way of doing something about the suffering."
To keep track of Altman's progress across country, go to www.hungerrelief2000.org. For information about MAZON, call (310) 442-0020.