Feeding The Hungry By Clicking Your Mouse

Daniel Sieberg is science and technology correspondent for CBS News.
Ingenious. That's probably the best word to describe computer programmer John Breen. He's the man behind Freerice.com, a new Web site with a unique, two-pronged approach to tackling literacy and world hunger. A lofty-sounding goal, I know. But Breen is determined to make it happen, one click at a time.

When you first visit Freerice.com you see the vocabulary quiz that challenges your word wisdom. The game adjusts to your level of skill, giving you increasingly hard words as you progress. And, as a bonus, each time you get a definition right, 10 grains of rice gets donated to the United Nations World Food Program. How does the math work? Stay with me here –- Breen gets money from big-name sponsors like American Express, Fujitsu and Apple. Those companies place banner ads on the page. That money is then sent to the UN, which buys the rice in a particular region. To get the ball rolling, Breen actually sent the UN a check for $100,000 (yes, the UN verified it has his money). He has since collected about that much from the various companies, and the UN says it's in the process of buying a couple hundreds metric tons of rice to ship to Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh. More than 1.8 billion grains of rice (roughly) has been donated through Freerice.com thus far, according to Breen.

His background includes a deep interest in global poverty issues and he actually has another Web site called poverty.com, which collects large donations from the national income of participating countries. His new-age approaches to tackling age-old problems are getting plenty of attention. Freerice.com has become a viral, international sensation with people even posting their thoughts about it on YouTube.com. The general consensus is one of support and encouragement for Breen.

Sure, it's unlikely that Freerice.com will solve the entire hunger situation, but obviously it's better than doing nothing. You could (perhaps cynically) argue that sitting in your office and clicking away on a mouse is a passive way of getting involved in world politics and aid. But Breen says he hopes it at least serves as a good educational tool (bonus boost in etymology included), may inspire people to do more, and many schools are getting onboard with the concept. I spent time with some fourth-grade kids in Bloomington, Indiana, (also where Breen lives) and watched them use Freerice.com. They were hooked. And so was the teacher. The young students were a tad fuzzy on exactly who needed the rice (I'm told geopolitical economic nuances gets taught in grade five), but they were very much caught up in the spirit of giving. Plus, they were connecting with the challenging word game. I've played it for about half an hour and didn't lose interest (I just had to bet back to work). Breen says he included about 20,000 words so you could play for a while without much repetition. In fact, he says that was a big part of setting up the site –- assembling those words, and then coming up with three alternative definitions. Oh, by the way, he says he's not making any money from it.

In today's age of dot-com billionaires getting rich off Web sites that seem pointless or time-wasting, Freerice.com is part of a welcome crop. Watch for the story tonight on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.