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Solving Urban Poverty with 55 Gallon Drums of Fish--Another Heifer Success Story

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Message Martha Rosenberg
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Chicago, IL

With its shameless photos of children hugging rabbits, goats and calves they will also dispatch and its celebrity stumpers, live animal charity Heifer International often gets a pass from donors and the press about its circular logic--that the poor should raise animals with the resources they don't have.

Its press materials also beg the question.

Are recipients unable to "grow enough feed" for donated animals? "Families are taught the best substitutes to buy locally," says a Heifer newsletter--skirting how the poor can "buy" anything or why they would grow animal feed rather than edible crops.

Will animals get proper care in places where veterinarians, "medicines, supplies and diagnostic capabilities" are not available? Families can use "local natural substances that are known to provide specific medicinal benefit," says Heifer. Maybe recipients will "buy them locally" too or grow them next to the animal feed.

Will animals' "destructive wandering on fragile lands" further desertification? Not if they're kept indoors in sheds that the poverty stricken families should build, says a Heifer newsletter.

But a failed Heifer experiment in aquaculture in Chicago in the 1990's highlights the flawed and failure-prone assistance model of the charity which a Mondaq Business Briefing article says is registered in the British Virgin Islands with cloudy ownership.

The idea was to have poor kids living in the Chicago Housing Authority's Robert Taylor Homes learn aquaculture.

Not only would the tilapia--a fish bought for 5 cents each from Illinois State University and capable of growing to 2 feet--provide nice fillets for housing project dwellers, the project would provide young people, "job readiness skills and learning to become stewards of the natural environment and their community," enthused Heifer International's Alison Meares Cohen.

The "natural environment" of fish squeezed into 55 gallon drums could even be extended to Chicago 70,000 vacant lots and start including sheep, goats and cows said Heifer.

And don't forget the nice income the local restaurants scrambling to buy the fish would provide residents.

Unfortunately the entire population of tilapia was killed.


In 1999 all the fish froze to death when the heat and power was cut to the building, some say deliberately.

And in 2001 the fish died of heat when power went off during a storm, some leaping "out of their barrels trying to escape accumulating ammonia and rising temperatures," according to the Chicago Tribune.

P.S. Not one fish was sold to a restaurant.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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