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Sep 12, 2014 05:33 PM EDT

Niagara University to Launch Poverty-Focused Social Entrepreneurship Program

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Niagara University in New York will launch a poverty-focused social entrepreneurship program that aims to address some of the most significant problems facing Niagara Falls area residents.

Students at the Catholic University will become directly engaged in finding new, self-sustaining, innovative solutions to the poverty-related issues of food, hunger and nutrition that confront so many Niagara Falls residents. The task is for an inaugural competition run by the Vincentian Community Enterprise Project.

According to a recent report commissioned by The John R. Oishei Foundation, approximately 15 percent of Niagara Falls' most vulnerable residents have urgent concerns around food. Parts of Niagara Falls have been designated as a food desert, or an area where people do not have adequate access to groceries.

"As a Catholic and Vincentian institution, we are committed to engaging our faculty, staff and students to serve whenever and wherever we are most needed," Rev. James J. Maher, president of Niagara University, said in a statement. "Food insecurity is a significant challenge affecting the City of Niagara Falls, Niagara County and, consequently, the Buffalo-Niagara region. It is my vision that we will do whatever we can to use the tools of teaching, service and research to identify the causes of poverty and propose sustainable and impactful short and long term solutions. This competition is an important step."

Students will spend the fall attending workshops and preparing proposals, with three finalists being chosen before the end of the semester. Each of the finalists will receive $500, along with additional resources, to develop their proposal into a full plan. In March, the winning team will receive up to $10,000 in startup funds, plus the opportunity to raise additional funds and resources to implement their plan.

"The outstanding mentor-mentee relationships that our professors have with our students will play a significant role in making this program a success. Our students will be the proprietors who are ultimately responsible for the ideas and the follow-through, but we plan to provide them with the resources, human and otherwise, that they need to be most effective," Dr. Tim Downs, provost of the university, said in a statement.

The competition will officially launch Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, with a university-wide celebration during Niagara's annual Vincentian Heritage Week.

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