In the Chinese culture in which I grew up, it is considered bad luck to have an empty rice container. Even today, my husband and I always replenish the vessel and have an extra bag of rice in store. This is symbolic of a life of plenty and a practical measure to not go hungry.
By some estimates, more than 840 million people, one in eight in the world, go to the bed hungry every night. While hunger is generally associated with developing countries, about 15 percent of families in the U.S. are classified as “food insecure,” meaning they suffer from hunger.
The United Nations rates malnutrition as the single biggest contributor to disease. Almost 7 million children under 5 die every year of hunger-related ailments: one-third due to malnutrition. Iodine deficiency is the greatest cause of mental disabilities and brain damage.
With a call to action by Pope Francis, Caritas Internationalis (the Vatican-based federation of Catholic charities), launched the “One Human Family, Food for All” campaign to end hunger by 2025.
The Catholic Church believes that there is sufficient food for everyone and views hunger as a problem that we can end.
The causes of hunger are many. Poverty prohibits access to food, and hunger in turn traps people in deeper poverty by significantly reducing their ability to function, work, go to school or fight disease.
Small-scale farmers or landless laborers represent 75 percent of those who go hungry, according to Bread for the World Institute. Generally, they do not have capital to invest in equipment, tools, irrigation, seeds for new crops and training that would allow them to earn a living. Calamities from drought, floods, pests or climate change put food out of reach for those who rely on the land to sustain them.
Wars and violent conflicts displace farmers and herders from their land, and starvation is sometimes used to eliminate the enemy. Volatile prices exacerbate the problem affecting rural and urban poor.
One-third of food produced is never consumed, says the U.N. Much cannot get into the market because there are no roads, warehouses and post-harvest production facilities. There is also waste from our tables and refrigerators when food is tossed away.
A comprehensive discussion of ways to end hunger is not possible in a short essay. The important point is that solutions are needed.
It could mean coming up with transformative means such as resistant varieties and diversification of crops. It could mean government investments in agriculture infrastructure or private investment that provides affordable capital and insurance to small farmers, protection of farmer land rights for men and women, or efficient food aid that increases flexibility and builds up local markets.
Programs that enhance crop resilience and incomes for small-scale farmers also would help, as well as a provision of nutrition for the first 1,000 days of life (from conception to 2 years of age).
We can solve the problem. We must. Food is a requirement for life and for human dignity. It is not optional and ultimately it comes from the bounty of God. Pope Francis in addressing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations last June said we fight to end hunger in order “to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.”
Support your local food bank, do not waste food, stand up against policies that reduce food assistance to the poor, whether in the U.S. or overseas, and sign up for Catholics Confront Global Poverty here.
Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.