Enduring Hunger on World Food Day

Today is World Food Day, a date observed in honor of the founding of the Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN in 1945. At the time of writing this, there are currently 805 million people who go undernourished every day. That’s roughly 11 percent of the world’s entire population.

Conversely, around the globe 75 McDonald’s hamburgers are sold every single second.

Many of us will rise today and eat breakfast, followed by two more meals and maybe some snacks throughout the day. We’ll read articles about lack of food resources — such as the 350,000 people living in Chad who are facing starvation — and while our hearts may weigh heavy and ache for those less fortunate, not much will change in our personal lives. The true gravity of undernourishment or starvation will remain a remote concept, a reality whispered to us from across vast seas and a burden many of us will likely never have to endure.

But what if the issue is far closer to home than many of us would like to believe?

In our country, hunger isn’t caused so much by lack of food but rather by the continued, pervasive reach of poverty. In a land brimming with surplus, 49 million Americans still struggle to put food on the table. More than one in five children faces hunger; among African-American and Latino communities, that figure becomes one in three.

The numbers are grave and disconcerting, especially considering how much food goes to waste every year. Annually, America throws away nearly half of all its food. That’s $165 billion worth of food that could help feed the 13.1 million hungry households with children.

Much of this isn’t quite mindfully intentional, which is part of what makes it such an insidious problem. While we export more food than any other country in the world, we also have a great deal of government health restrictions in place that force restaurants to throw away food rather than donating it to those in need. Not far from home in Buffalo, NY, I can recall the almost mythic retellings of Bagel Jesus, a young man who took to the wintry streets on his skateboard every night as the sun went down and temperatures dropped, filling 50lb trash bags and rucksacks with discarded bagels and pastries from all of the downtown deli employees who knew his name so that he could distribute everything he could physically carry to the homeless.

Not everyone will choose to carry that weight. On World Food Day each year we observe a different theme to highlight specific aspects of food shortages around the world. For 2017, the theme is to “change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development.” And while the Pope migrates to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Headquarters to deliver a speech alongside G7 Agriculture Ministers, our President, arguably a caricature for the very antithesis of open doors and a staunch opponent to migration, could recently be observed lobbing a roll of paper towels like some deranged performer trying to demonstrate how to shoot a three-pointer into a crowd of hurricane survivors during his visit to Puerto Rico.

Walking the streets of Brooklyn this morning, I can see the Puerto Rican flags billow from apartment windows, ruffled by winds that carry little hope aloft to nearly three and a half million of our own people who are rightfully feeling abandoned. Recovery has been painfully arduous in the wake of Hurricane Maria, with relief efforts delivered considerably slower than past responses to natural disasters in other parts of the country. Life is becoming more difficult, not easier, for citizens who are beginning to fully realize the horror that sinks in after three weeks with little to no power, water, and especially food.

Federal officials aren’t trying to hide the devastating inadequacy in response efforts. Representatives at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) admitted that the government are only providing 200,000 meals a day to satiate the needs of more than two million people.

“We are 1.8 million meals short,” declared one Fema official. “That is why we need the urgency. And it’s not going away. We’re doing this much today, but it has to be sustained over several months.”

That timeline doesn’t appear to be a realistic commitment, considering the largest provider of cooked meals says Fema is putting its operations at risk of closure. World Central Kitchen, which provides 90,000 meals a day through an inspiring network of local chefs and kitchens, had a contract through Fema to provide just 20,000 meals a day to Puerto Rico that ended last Tuesday. Fema is adamant about the constriction of federal rules that will likely take several of weeks for the emergence of a new contract to feed hungry Americans.

World Central Kitchen chef and founder José Andrés has already served over 350,000 meals on the island (he hopes to raise that number to 100,000 a day), and there are at least 150 restaurants that are donating meals today to participate in a World Food Day effort to help. There are a number of ways each of us can do our part to lessen that burden, and you can read about them here.

As we approach the holiday season, let’s take a minute and remember to help the millions of other people less fortunate than ourselves and bare in mind that the season of charitable giving is something we should and can commit to all year round.

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