12 million helping hands for US hungry

FROM the prairies, to the mountains, to the oceans far and wide . . . a single place in line will cost you $10. Rock superstar Prince bought the first mile for a cool $13,200. Now the race is on for who -- corporation, celebrity, individual -- will buy the other 4,151 miles' worth. The proceeds from USA for Africa's latest history- and money-making project -- 6 million people holding hands from New York to Los Angeles next May 25 -- are destined not for African famine victims, but for America's own hungry and homeless.

Announced last October but kicked off formally here last week, the new idea of attracting $50 million to $100 million to combat US hunger was endorsed by 150 celebrities in person and six pages' worth of famous names in writing.

Sports figures from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Mary Lou Retton are leading a long list of athlete endorsements. And companies -- Coca-Cola, Motorola, and MTV were in line early -- are deluging organizers with questions about how to donate services and get in on the act.

But USA for Africa president Ken Kragen emphasizes that ``it will be ordinary individuals who are the celebrities in this project, not the thousands of high-caliber names lending their support.''

Besides explaining the logistics of lining up 6 million people in a serpentine route from New York to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, and finally Los Angeles, Mr. Kragen emphasized that the project is aimed at heightening awareness of hunger problems that ``many American's don't even know exist.''

Acknowledging the difficulty of establishing firm statistics, he said that an estimated 10 million to 20 million Americans go hungry sometime each month. There are up to 2.5 million homeless people in the United States, and the number -- particularly of families with children -- is rising, Kragen said. He quoted a report issued last April by the US General Accounting Office which cites cuts in public-assistance programs, the decreasing availability of low-income housing, de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, and alcohol and drug abuse as combining to increase the homeless population in America.

To heighten and prolong public attention to the plight of the hungry and homeless, Kragen announced a series of domestic grants, distributed from proceeds of the hit benefit recording ``We Are the World.''

$111,960 will go to the Physicians' Task Force on Hunger in America to support an in-depth examination of selected ``hunger counties.''

Field investigators will try to determine why these pockets of poverty -- identified in a recent, and controversial, report by the Physicians' Task Force which was published by the Harvard University School of Public Health -- have failed to feed and house their citizens adequately.

$100,000 will go to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger for activities on more than 1,000 campuses. Emphasis will be on institutionalizing student-run community-action projects, regular speakers' bureaus, and discussion groups.

$250,000 will go to a ``Cities in Schools'' program to fund two pilot projects that create classrooms within the walls of private-sector companies.

These so-called ``models of hope,'' modeled after a successful program housed in Rich's Department Store in Atlanta, are intended to ensure that students have access to adequate food, medical care, and shelter as well as employment and education.

In keeping with other fund-raising projects sponsored by USA for Africa, filming began on a ``Hands Across America'' video last weekend in the small community of Taft, Calif. A song with a driving beat similar to ``We Are the World'' will be made public in this Sunday's pregame Super Bowl show, with a full four minutes donated free by NBC.

Organizers say both video and song will be the centerpiece of increasing publicity over the next four months.

``I don't know if people roll their eyes or not when they see another major project like this taking place,'' says Marty Rogol, executive director of USA for Africa. ``The fact is, every one of these projects has exceeded our wildest dreams. You find that people do care, they do want to be involved -- donate their time, money, and energy. All you have to do is figure out the best way to heighten their awareness.''

So far 50,000 people have signed up to stand in line, and total pledges stand at $700,000.

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