Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

14 posts from August 2011

We Are Connected By What We Eat

[Editors' note: Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. He recently participated in an action with the Coalition of Immakolee Workers to ask the Publix grocery store to support labor protections for field workers. Below is his account.]

We are connected by what we eat -- to the farmers who grow our food, the harvesters who pick it, the transporters who bring it to market, the grocers who present it, and the cooks who prepare it.

Next time you eat a tomato, imagine the people who actually picked that tomato out in the hot sun. They would have to get up early, get out into the fields, and they would have to pick a big bucket [of tomatoes]. And then they’d hoist it up on their shoulder, and they’d have to carry it out into a truck. They’ll make 50 cents for picking all those tomatoes and hauling it out into that truck. They’ll do it again and again throughout the course of the day.

On Friday, August 5, I joined some advocates from the Coalition of Immakolee Workers and prayed in the grocery aisle of a Publix grocery store. After we prayed in the Publix, we went out into the parking lot and we all took turns seeing what it feels like to hoist one of those bucket full of tomatoes. We got a feel for what the guys who do the job every day actually have to do. And by the way, that bucket that we filled with our tomatoes? We found out that [those tomatoes] cost more than $79, and the guys who pick it only get 50 cents for what we pay Publix $79.

Then we went to a church nearby, and there we did some praying and talking. We want to do all we can to encourage fair trade in tomatoes, just as we encouraged fair trade in coffee.

You know we really are connected by the food we eat, to the farmers that grow it to the harvesters that pick it to the grocers who sell it. If we take those connections seriously, we'll realize we are all human beings, all beloved by God, and we’ll find it easier to do the right thing. We’ll work for justice, and the world will be a little more full of hope.

Read the full text of our prayer and watch video of our action above.               

Brian D. McLaren blogs at briandmclaren.net and is author of Naked Spirituality.

Why are We Storing Seeds Near the North Pole?

It looks like the back end of a semi truck that crashed head down into a snowy hillside, but it's really the entrance to a world of food not-yet-grown: seeds. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 to securely store seeds from around the globe. Natural disasters, political instability or a combination of the two plus other factors can cause famine (such as in the Horn of Africa) and threaten individual countries' seed banks. But Svalbard, located about 800 miles from the North Pole, is free from these worries. It allows researchers - and eventually farmers - to access the seeds in case of disasters or accidents . Says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps manage Svalbard:

We have a fairly unique mission. Well, not fairly: it's completely unique. And that is to conserve the diversity of our crops, agricultural crops, forever. It's to figure out a system, install a system, and fund a system for conserving that part of biodiversity in perpetuity.

Watch the video above for more about Svalbard and its importance to the world.

This story is part of our Wednesday ViewChange video series.

'I Eat and Mom Doesn't': Growing Up Hungry in America

For 10-year-old Jazeer from Philadelphia, life is toughest when his family’s food stamps run out at the end of the month. “I eat and my mom doesn’t. She sacrifices,” he shares with the ABC News correspondent in another installment of the network’s series, “Hunger in America.”

In this episode, the focus is on families with young children who are feeling the effects of growing up food insecure. Jazeer films home footage of his empty refrigerator and a shopping trip to his family’s nearest source of food: a Rite Aid.

After the recession, the number of Americans on food stamps rose from 26 to 46 million people. Furthermore, 2.4 million children in our nation now live in poverty, and 17 million children are growing up food insecure.  Watch the video below about Jazeer and children growing up hungry, and keep reading the Bread blog for further commentary on this important ABC News series.

+PLUS: Are you looking for a way to teach children about children growing up hungry? See these resources for kids from Bread for the World

What is USAID Doing in the Horn of Africa?

This past weekend, in the midst of the hubbub over Hurricane Irene in Washington, DC, I went to pick up some supplies at my local Target. As I walked past the bare aisles, watching people fill their overflowing carts with water bottles, loaves of bread, milk, and cheese, I was haunted by an interview I’d read in The Washington Post with Nancy Lindborg, head of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. Her office is coordinating U.S. efforts in the Horn of Africa, where severe drought has left more than 12 million people in need in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. The region is facing a three-part crisis, according to Lindborg: drought, famine, and refugees from Somalia streaming into Ethiopa and Kenya by the thousands every day.

With $581.6 million in aid, how is USAID combating the most urgent problems? Lindborg shares their strategy:

In Somalia … we’re providing immediate food assistance, with an emphasis on therapeutic foods [easily digestible food such as peanut paste or high-energy biscuits.] We’re also focused on health and sanitation, as we’re seeing the emergence of cholera and measles. Access to clean water -- the ability to reduce mortality with that simple act is mind-boggling.

(Click here to read the full interview.)

Furthermore, USAID is distributing $8 million in food vouchers to allow families to buy the food they need and keep the local economy afloat. 

I walked out of Target empty-handed, fully aware that I had plenty of supplies at home. Food. Shelter. Water. As people of faith in a land of plenty, where hurricane warnings come hand-in-hand with clarion calls to the nearest stores stocked with supplies, we must keep our focus on those with little as we travel together on the journey toward the common good, as Walter Brueggemann puts it.

Learn more about the famine in the Horn of Africa:


ABC News Covers Hunger at Home

For the 14.3 percent of Americans living in poverty, every day is a struggle. Walking down the grocery store aisles becomes an anxiety-ridden task of calculations, cost comparisons, and hand wringing as they try to stretch every dollar to put food on their tables. Unfortunately, hunger in America is a growing epidemic. Consider the numbers:

  • In 2009, 14.3 percent of Americans were in poverty, the highest percentage since 1994.
  • Nearly one in four children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, one in three children is at risk of hunger.
  • In most areas, a family needs to earn twice the poverty line of $21,756 for a family of four to provide children with basic necessities.

This past Wednesday, ABC News launched a series of reports entitled Hunger at Home: Crisis in America, to explore the effects of the growing number of homeless and poor people in our nation and to put names and faces to the statistics above. They shared the story of Pat Jurado, a mother of two boys, Sebastian and Aiden, who moved her family from New Jersey to North Carolina in search of work. Unable to find a job, she and her husband found themselves homeless for the first time.

Watch Wednesday night’s report on the Jurado family below, and be sure to check back on the Bread Blog for a series of reflections on ABC News’s continued coverage on hunger in America.

Video: The Yangtze River's Power

The Three Gorges Dam on China Yangtze's River is one of the largest dams in the world, generating electricty and drinking water for millions. But the dam also displaced millions of people when the rising river swallowed up their villages and cities. How far is too far when it comes to development and lifting people out of poverty?

This story is part of our Wednesday ViewChange video series.

Complexities of the Horn of Africa Famine

A Somali woman and a malnourished child exit from the medical tent after the child received emergency medical treatment from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Somalia is the country worst affected by a severe drought that has ravaged large swaths of the Horn of Africa, leaving an estimated 11 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

We've been writing for the past few weeks about the complexities of the famine in the Horn of Africa. It's not just drought or political instability or rising food prices that have caused this crisis. It's many interconnected issues: When there's no water, people can't drink or grow food. Food prices rise. People can't feed or hydrate themselves or their animals. Animals die and people get sick. Malnourishment sets in, which makes people susceptible to disease. And so on and so forth.

A recent Associated Content interview with Laura Sheahen and Sara A. Fajardo of Catholic Relief Services drives home these points:

....we are currently helping to feed more than a million people in Ethiopia and have launched projects in Isiolo and Wajir, Kenya and about to launch projects in Mandera where the drought's impact has been severe. Some of the pastoralist communities living there have lost 50-100 percent of their livestock. These projects include rehabilitating wells, assisting with school-feeding programs and working on conflict mitigation projects between different pastoralist communities who may be trying to access the same limited resources.


Droughts are cyclical in eastern Africa and their frequency (due to a variety of factors) is on the rise. Even if it rains tomorrow and the crops start growing, it will be quite awhile before things stabilize to the point where people can harvest enough food to sustain a family. It's also important to remember that many of the drought-affected communities are pastoralists and rely on livestock for their survival. The UN estimates that it can take up to 5 years for herds of livestock to regenerate to a point that they can be relied as a consistent source of food.

This wasn't a sudden crisis: the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) flagged trouble in late 2010 but the response was not fast. So what's needed besides short-term food aid? What we've been saying all along: Investment in poverty-focused development assistance programs that help people support themselves, so they don't have to depend on aid.

Video: Starting Ethiopia's Commodities Exchange

Former World Bank economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin has long said that the lack of agricultural market information in Africa is one of the reasons people there remain poor. In this TED talk from 2007, Gabre-Madhin proposes starting a commodites exchange in Ethiopia.

Africa's markets are weak not only because of weak infrastructure in terms of roads and telecommunications, but also because of the virtual absence of necessary market institutions such as market information, grades and standards, and reliable ways to connect buyers and sellers. Because of this, commodity buyers and sellers typically transact in small circles, in narrow networks of people they know and trust.

Since giving this talk, Gabre-Madhin's vision has been realized. She's now the CEO of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, which traded more than $1 billion in commodities in its first 1,000 days.


Why Is America Cutting Emergency Food Aid in the Middle of a Famine?

Tony Hall and staff from the Alliance to End Hunger are currently in East Africa to see the devastating impact of the famine gripping the Horn of Africa. Here is his first-hand report:

Ambassador Tony Hall, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, on a visit to Kenya in 2006. Hall is currently traveling through the country to witness first-hand the impact of the famine in the Horn of Africa. When I first visited Ethiopia at the height of the 1984 famine, I watched as 24 people died of starvation in less than 15 minutes, right in front of my eyes. Barely five years into my career as a congressman, nothing my staff told me beforehand could have prepared me for what I saw on that trip. 

Gasping at awful photographs of unspeakable human suffering is one thing; bearing firsthand witness to human suffering is another thing entirely. Glancing at a picture of a starving child in the newspaper, you can always turn away. But when you're staring into the eyes of a mother who has just lost that child, it's a completely different story. There's no looking the other way. 

That's why I often describe those first Ethiopia experiences as my "converting ground" on issues of global hunger. What happened in Ethiopia changed me, and changed how an entire generation looks at hunger. 

It's also why I'm currently back on the Horn of Africa, reporting on the ground from the Dadaab refugee camp in  eastern Kenya, less than fifty miles from the Somali border. And I am appealing to my affluent brothers and sisters in the United Stated and around the world not to look away. We need your help. 

The worst drought in 60 years has struck the continent, putting more than 12 million people at risk of serious malnutrition, starvation, and even death. According to USAID, more than 500,000 Somalis have already fled the worst areas of their country, seeking food and water across the border in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. 

Today at the Dadaab camp I met a husband and wife and their six children who have spent the last two months walking hundreds of miles from their home in Somalia. They arrived with nothing but the clothes on their back. They've made this tremendous sacrifice for one simple reason: They want to live. Dadaab gives them that hope. 

Meanwhile, back in Washington, some of America's political leaders are considering budget cuts that would make it all but impossible for us to respond to crises like these in the future. The U.S. House of Representatives already voted on a budget proposal for FY2012 cutting emergency food aid by 75 percent compared with FY2008 levels. If enacted, these cuts will decrease America's commitment to addressing global hunger from 30 percent of the current global total need to less than 15 percent. 

In my former role as the U.S. ambassador to the UN World Food Program, I visited dozens of refugee camps in crisis zones all over the world, and Dadaab is the best-run camp I have ever seen. It's clear that the money that the United States has spent on this crisis so far is being used well. We have actually learned and improved since 1984, but if we pull back now all of this is at risk. Now is not the time for deep cuts to emergency food aid. 

The proposed cuts ignore the low-cost of these life-saving programs; U.S. foreign aid spending is less than 1 percent of the total budget. They also ignore broad bipartisan support these programs have shared in recent decades; President George W. Bush actually increased funding for international feeding programs. Moreover, these cuts would undermine our national security; hungry people either migrate, revolt ,or die, all three of which create extreme instability. Finally, and most importantly, these cuts violate the basic moral principle that we should not harm the most vulnerable people in the world in their moment of greatest need.  

I walked away from my first trip to Ethiopia with the conviction that, though we live in a great nation, for everything we were doing to address the crisis our efforts were not enough. They weren't enough to save those 24 people I watched die. They weren't enough for that mother and her child. America needed to do more, not less. Bearing witness to what's currently happening on the Horn of Africa, I still feel this way.

The actions of some Washington politicians beg the obvious question: Why in God's name are they cutting funding for emergency food aid in the middle of a famine?  In 1984, people of faith and conscience said, "Never again". It's time for America to start living up to this promise.

Photo caption: Ambassador Tony Hall, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, on a visit to Kenya in 2006. Hall is currently traveling through the country to witness first-hand the impact of the famine in the Horn of Africa.

Bread Immigration Film to Air on Link TV

Bread has partnered with nonprofit broadcaster Link TV on a new documentary called ViewChange: Challenging Hungera 30-minute special about three innovative programs that combat hunger.

The first video story—“Stay: Migration and Poverty in Rural Mexico”—was shot by our own Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Bread’s multimedia manager. She tells the story of two migrant farmers from Mexico who traveled to the United States and Canada for work but are now able to stay in their home country and support their families. The two additional stories cover an innovative microfinance program in Bangladesh, and the amazing work women in Ethiopia are doing to create long-term solutions to hunger.

ViewChange: Challenging Hunger will be broadcast on Link TV this Friday, August 12, with repeat broadcasts the next week. And of course, you can watch the show anytime on the Bread website and the ViewChange website.

 Be sure to alert your friends and family—and tell us what you think!

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