The Hunger Project: A Historical Background

A News Summary/April 8, 2004
By Rick Ross

According to an early publication by The Hunger Project (THP), which has since been withdrawn from circulation, it was "formally" launched "at the February 1977 meeting of the est Advisory Board." And "the est Foundation took responsibility for the role of bringing the project into existence."

Est (Erhard Seminars Training) was the brainchild of John Paul ("Jack") Rosenberg, a former used car and encyclopedia salesman who changed his name to "Werner Hans Erhard."

In 1991, after years of controversy surrounding both him and the seminars he created, Erhard sold est to his brother Harry Rosenberg and a group of employees. The for-profit business was subsequently renamed Landmark Education. And it still features an introductory course originally designed by Erhard called the Forum.

Programs like the Forum have been criticized by mental health professionals as potentially unsafe "mass marathon trainings."

Many of the concepts and terminology used by Erhard to create his so-called "technology" or est training appear to have come from Scientology and Mind Dynamics, where he was once an instructor.

Mind Dynamics, which is now defunct, was sued by the State of California for making fraudulent claims.

Hunger Project links to est

Joan Holmes has a long history with THP and is its current president. But before Holmes started at THP she was a manager at est in education. Holmes has spoken about her transformation through est. She once said, "Est training altered everything for me" ("A Look at est in Education" December 1975).

The magazine Christian Century pointed out in an article titled "The Hunger Project and EST: Close Ties" (December 26, 1979) that no less than "three initial directors of the Hunger Project (Michael Chatzky, Robert Dunnett and Mark Schiavenza) worked out of the office of Werner Erhard's "lawyer friend."

The magazine also reported that the then "vice-president and the secretary-treasurer of [THP] were both members of the est advisory board."

Other est links within THP's staff included workers like Keith Blume and Lynne Twist.

Twist was on staff at est prior to her employment at THP.

According to an introduction regarding the documentary "A Hungry Planet" by Blume, "The est Foundation funded extra prints and distribution for the film." And "Keith Blume graduated from the est training and [then] his involvement in The Hunger Project had begun."

The Blume film was used at THP presentations.

Carol Giambalvo, a former volunteer for THP, wrote an in-depth paper titled "The Hunger Project Inside Out" (1987). In her report Giambalvo recounts a volunteer conference where Joan Holmes was a featured speaker (February 1985).

Holmes told the gathering, "The Hunger Project has a set of generating principles, the expression of which out into the world, is The Hunger Project. The Hunger Project is about locating in the fabric of self the end of hunger and starvation...It is our sense that when that is done to any appreciable degree, that we can have an end of hunger."

In a 1980 memo Holmes elaborated, "Est graduates represent the state of transformation in the world, the space of having the world work for everyone. Four years ago the graduates took on The Hunger Project and the end of starvation on our planet..."

Longtime est enthusiast, THP volunteer and attorney Martin "Marty" Leaf wrote in the THP newsletter Quantum Leap in 1978, "True satisfaction comes from the transformation of self realized by maintaining the integrity of Werner Erhard's abstractions and generating principles."

Werner Erhard wrote the "principles and abstractions" for THP's "Source Document."

Leaf's former law partner Ellis Duel once served as Chairman of the Board of Directors for THP.

The language and philosophy espoused by Holmes and Leaf reflects the worldview of est founder Werner Erhard.

In 1978 Erhard stated, "The Hunger Project is not about solutions. It's not about fixing up the problem. It's not anybody's good idea. The Hunger Project is about creating a context -- creating the end of hunger as an idea whose time has come. As a function of The Hunger Project, we will learn what we need to know to make an idea's time come; then we will know how to make the world work" (The Hunger Project, "It's Our Planet -- It's Our Hunger Project" May 1978 San Francisco, CA).

Kevin Garvey, a well-known critic of est and Erhard authored a series of articles for Our Town, a New York City newspaper.

"Erhard founded The Hunger Project as an outlet for the creative and charitable impulses of est graduates," Garvey concluded in an article titled "Hunger Project: Erhard's est laboratory" (April 19, 1980).

He then explained that the est founder provided "a philosophy for how the world works." And that this philosophy permeated and motivated THP "leadership and personnel." That this Erhard worldview also became expressed through "a language and a style of work, and effective techniques" used by THP.

History of controversy

Other published articles reflect the controversy, which has historically surrounded THP.

In December 1978 Mother Jones magazine published a critical article reporting the connections between Erhard, est and THP. Reporter Suzanne Gordon raised issues such as how the organization's funding was handled, and that office space or telephones for THP were often housed at est centers. Gordon also noted that the same celebrities associated with est, such as Valerie Harper and John Denver, were spokespersons for THP.

In 1979 The Christian Century magazine reported detailed information from a 1977 Hunger Project financial statement. The magazine stated that THP "disbursed approximately $800,000; but apparently not a cent of that amount was spent either on providing food for the hungry or on developing reliable food sources for the poor."

Instead, Christian Century reported "15%" was spent on "administration," with the rest expended for ''communications,'' such as "brochures, newspapers, ads and conferences 'Presentations' alone cost about $500,000."

The author of the Christian Century article was respected educator Dr. David Hoekema. He told readers about THP "traveling around the country, visiting college campuses and other locations, distributing literature and soliciting contributions."

Hoekema warned, "Let me address a strong word of caution to those who have recently encountered the Hunger Project, but are unaware of its origin and character. The Hunger Project is an offshoot of Erhard Seminars Training, commonly known as est, the brainchild of Werner Erhard." He went on to define est as "an intensive training session" with an "underlying message that each of us is responsible only and wholly for himself or herself."

Seeds Magazine published an article "It Doesn't Add Up" (December 1984), which raised serious questions regarding THP's use of measurements and statistics to prove its thesis.

And within an article titled "Hunger Project Feeds Itself" published by the McGill Daily (February 13, 1985) it was reported that relief organizations, such as CUSA, Oxfam International and the Peace Corps, had disassociated themselves from THP.

In fact, on May 30, 1981 the national board of directors of Oxfam, Canada passed a resolution, which stated they would not endorse any activities or programs sponsored by THP, nor would they accept funds from the project.

The Canadian newspapers Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Star pointed out that a THP program was barred from Toronto, Ottawa and Carleton schools.

The Fifth Estate television program (Canadian Broadcast Corp.) aired a documentary about THP October 23, 1986, which once again reflected the controversy that surrounded the organization.

Joan Holmes, current President of THP, denied any connection with est within The Fifth Estate report.

However, John Coonrod the current Vice President of THP has tacitly admitted in writing the connection historically between est and THP.

In a letter last year Coonrod wrote, "The Hunger Project has never denied that Werner Erhard was one of the founders of The Hunger Project or that, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Erhard encouraged participants in his programs to support The Hunger Project" (letter to Carol Giambalvo February 5, 2003).

"Mr. Erhard left our board in 1990 and has had no subsequent participation with The Hunger Project. The successor to his own organization, Landmark Education, has not supported The Hunger Project, either directly or through encouraging anyone to support The Hunger Project," Coonrod further explained.

But it seems that it is Erhard's "principles and abstractions" that still largely animate what THP is all about and remain the primary impetus or "source" behind much of its programming.

In 1979 Hoekema quoted a Hunger Project brochure that stated, ''The sole purpose of the Hunger Project is the creation of a space, a context - the end of hunger and starvation on our planet in two decades,' which he said corresponded with "estian terminology."

However, Hoekema offered the following critique regarding that philosophy, "The solution to both personal and social problems, according to est, lies in refusing to allow other people to make demands on us and in doing whatever we really want to do. In estian terminology, 'You have to create a context for yourself, develop a space for where you're at.'"

"I cannot accept the Hunger Project's fundamental claim: that starvation will be our 'getting clear,' 'creating a context' - in simple English, by narcissism and empty talk. That claim is false and dangerous," Hoekema opined about the organization and its programs in 1979.

The Hunger Project today

THP describes itself as "a strategic organization and global movement committed to the sustainable end of world hunger" and largely depends upon its "40,000" volunteers. The organization works "in partnership with 120 staff in 22 countries." THP is a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt organization in the U.S. and it took in more than $6 million dollars during 2002. THP reported spending "76.1% [on] programs," "16.8% [on] administration" and "7.1% [on] fund-raising."

Today at its official website THP states that its programs identify "the conditions that give rise to the persistence of hunger." And that it creates "strategies to make known, directly intervene and transform these conditions...restore and unleash the human spirit and provide opportunities so that people...can take control of their own lives, be authors of their own development, and have voice in the decisions that affect their lives."

Is this more of what David Hoekema called "empty talk"?

THP reiterates, "The bottom line is simple - we invest in and empower people."

But what about investing in food to directly feed the world's hungry? Won't food "empower people"?

THP still seems to largely dismiss such a "conventional approach" to world hunger. "Conventional approaches are based on a framework of thinking that is inconsistent with what actually must be done to achieve the end of hunger on a sustainable basis," THP concludes.

"We are committed to identifying and utilizing an accurate framework of thinking, and pioneering strategies and actions that will enable humanity to create a new future - a future free from hunger," THP says.

"The Hunger Project believes that the strategies and actions required to end hunger must emanate from a new set of principles. These principles are derived from an authentic confrontation with the commitment to ending hunger, and from a deeper examination of what it means to be human," states official THP website.

Former THP volunteer Carol Giambalvo explained, "We believed the world was deceived regarding the conditions contributing to hunger...[and]...operates under false assumptions...that actually serve to keep it in place. The world is denying its responsibility..."

THP says it is presenting "a new paradigm - a paradigm consistent with the end of hunger. The key elements of that new paradigm are...self-reliance [and an]...enabling environment."

"The work of ending hunger is therefore not feeding people. It is the work of creating an enabling environment in which people have the opportunity and empowerment they need to build lives of self-reliance," THP states.

THP then goes on to say that this is "Not a program, but a phenomenon." And that they are involved in "galvanizing" and "catalyzing that phenomenon."

"New paradigm," "authentic," "transformation," "empowering," "commitment," creating "an accurate framework of thinking," "galvanizing" and ultimately "catalyzing that phenomenon" is verbiage either identical to or reminiscent of est and Erhard.

"Vowing to tell the truth about hunger in the world, committing ourselves to raising the commitment to end hunger in the world. We were being totally responsible," says Carol Giambalvo about her days at THP.

But where is the food to fill the stomachs of starving people? Will they be fed by an "accurate framework of thinking," and "truth"?

And as Seed magazine once queried, where is the objective evidence (i.e. detailed measurements and statistics) that consistently demonstrates how THP thesis or so-called "paradigm" really works?

There doesn't seem to be a section for such objective information at the THP website, which offers instead largely anecdotal stories. And there is nothing whatsoever about THP's historical connections to Erhard and est.

In a follow-up article written for Christian Century titled "You can't eat words" (1979) David Hoekema offered this pragmatic advice. "If we want to work toward a solution to the problems of world hunger, we would do better to invest our time and money in relief programs [and] organizations engaged not just in talk, but in carefully chosen action," the scholar said.

Note: This summary was largely based upon "The Hunger Project: Inside Out" by Carol Giambalvo, 1987.

Copyright © 2004 Rick Ross.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.