We are in the middle of an international hunger crisis. Sixteen thousand children die each day from hunger-related issues. Of the approximately 7 billion people in our world, 2 billion struggle to survive on less than $1 per day.
Yet we have the power in our hands to create change.
“Hunger is important because it is systemic—but also preventable. People do not have to be hungry. It is unacceptable that some people believe there will always be hungry and poor people because ‘that’s just the way it is,’” LaVida Davis, interim director of organizing at Bread for the World, an anti-hunger organization, said.
The problem lies not in the amount of food available, but the way in which it is distributed; the power and politics of the situation have combined to create our current food crisis. And conditions are worsening as food prices continue to rise, eating away at the incomes of the poor.
The food disaster in East Africa, the world’s worst food crisis in many years, demonstrates how extensively our food system is failing. Climate changes generating droughts and floods have exacerbated the situation, but poverty and political instability have turned the region into a humanitarian emergency. Twelve million people are currently facing starvation.
“So you have a lot of people who are fighting for their lives because they may have been growing food for their families and themselves, but because several rains have not happened this year, they are at a precarious state,” Vicky Rateau, Grow campaign manager for Oxfam America, said.
Further aggravating the situation, small-scale food producers, who are often relied upon to feed their communities, have lost out to large-scale industrial farming, the main source of agriculture investing today.
With agriculture an increasingly attractive market due to rising food prices, foreign investors have swooped into poor countries and eaten up valuable farmland. Land that used to feed communities is now idling as a future investment or being used to grow crops for biofuels.
Something as simple as irrigation can make a huge difference, providing sources of water even during times of drought. Introducing drought-resistant seeds to farmers can mean the difference between life and death.
These challenges are compounded as entire communities become affected. In East Africa, the food crisis has spread to affect the majority.
“People can’t turn to one another,” Rateau said. “They find that their neighbors are in the same state. So what might have been a self-sustaining community, the infrastructure or things that could be depended on aren’t there. Everybody is facing the same problem in trying to access food.”
As food cost increases, families are forced to spend a higher and higher percentage of their income on food. American families of modest means can spend 30 percent of their income on food, but in developing countries, that figure is a dramatic 80 percent. And prices are expected to double by 2013, largely in reaction to climate change.
People who are living in poverty face tough choices and challenges that go far beyond food.
“If you can imagine what it is like to live in a reality where you spend 80 cents to feed a family or you could spend 80 cents on life-saving medicine or school fees or to put a roof over your head, you can imagine people having to pull back and cut down on the amount of food, which means less nutrition and lack of food,” Rateau noted. “There’s a reality in making these choices of what to do.”
While Americans may not appear to experience the same kind of extreme hunger as children in developing countries, the hunger crisis is still present in the United States, with one in four children living in households that struggle to buy food.
“In the United States, hunger does not come from a lack or scarcity of food—we have more than enough to provide for people in this country, and it is readily accessible to most people,” Davis said. “The economic situation our country faces from an unaccommodating job market combined with rising costs and increasing debt has forced many families into poverty. Eating healthy and regularly is often impossible when you have little money to spend on anything, let alone food.”
International conditions are often far worse. In Africa, mothers can walk up to hundreds of miles for days to seek sustenance for their starving children.
“There is a desperation that comes with being unable to find food for your family, or losing all your livestock and crops,” Davis explained. “While we have government programs in the United States that can protect the poor and the hungry, many who suffer around the world are on their own for survival.”
In June, Oxfam launched its multiyear Grow Campaign in 45 countries to focus on the policies and practices that governments, businesses and consumers need to implement to solve our hunger crisis and to feed the anticipated 9 billion people by 2050.
“We’re presenting a vision of a better future where everyone has enough to eat,” Rateau said. “We’re trying to spotlight increasing hunger and inequality with regards to natural resources that need to be addressed if we are to fix our broken food system.”
Bread for the World believes that humanitarian aid by itself will not be enough. If we want to eradicate the anguish of hunger, the nonprofit believes we need to tackle it from multiple perspectives and get to the root of the problem, in all its complexity.
As hunger manifests itself in different settings, Davis maintains the way to solve it must also lie in different routes. The real fight can often be to educate and raise funds.
“Today, one of the biggest challenges we are facing is ensuring that programs which protect and assist hungry people are safe from federal funding cuts,” she said. “Foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but is in danger of dramatic cuts, which would mean that the millions of people who benefit from poverty-focused development assistance will face even worse conditions.”
Some steps, says Rateau, are simple. Find out the conditions in which your food is produced. Join in the efforts of World Food Day. Celebrated around the world with documentaries, speakers, dinners and fundraisers, World Food Day is a perfect time to call for the kinds of changes we need to build a better future.
“(It’s) a way to focus on the conditions under which food is grown and what we can do to start ending hunger,” Rateau said. “It’s a way to talk about some of the inequalities and injustices that are facing the people who produce the food that is on our table.”
The public can make a difference by donating, getting informed, volunteering and writing letters to Congress on behalf of the hungry.
Today is World Food Day. Take action.