Towards Zero Hunger: Pitfalls and Possibilities

By: Katherine Marshall

October 19, 2018

Responding to: Food and Faith: How Can Religious Organizations Help End World Hunger?

Towards Zero Hunger: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Hunger may be the most vivid sign of the harsh realities of poverty. Hunger speaks to a suffering and pain that surely everyone with a human heart can imagine. It’s an ancient curse, etched in literature and sacred texts, felt through the daily gnawing of too little food to eat, the struggle of mothers to find money to buy materials, then to prepare meals for their children, and the crippling, criminal famines that afflict and kill millions: This very day we read with pain about imminent threats and hunger in Yemen and Nigeria and too many other places. The symbolic importance of a family dinner as the unifying sign of love and sharing is far from the daily realities of the hundreds of millions who face starvation. World Food Day (October 16) calls us to remember and to recommit to action.

The target and concrete goal is vividly set out in Sustainable Development Goal #2: Zero Hunger by 2030, that is an integral part of the commitment of all member countries of the United Nations to end poverty. That means that it is a shared, global goal, calling for action at a worldwide level (resources for United Nations agencies like the World Food Programme), for each and every country (for hunger is a phenomenon everywhere), and for every community and family. Zero hunger means action to stop famines and thus the conflicts that are their primary cause—that is the challenge in Yemen and Nigeria. It demands creative action to ensure that refugees and people displaced within their own countries do not face starvation. 

But many actions needed for Zero Hunger are less visible, less concentrated. Many of the most insidious aspects of hunger are largely invisible. The horrible name for an indicator of malnutrition—stunting—refers to serious lack of food, and inadequate diets for hundreds of millions of children.

Religious communities worldwide share a remarkable legacy: a focus on hunger and innumerable efforts to meet the needs of the hungry. Actions include traditions of hospitality and shared meals, direct and sustained programs to serve the hungry (soup kitchens, for example), and humanitarian support for those in conflicts and disasters. Many religious communities push the boundaries of charitable, compassionate action to address root causes, for example by supporting small farms or marketing cooperatives. Support for early childhood often starts with nutrition programs. And religious actors are among the most powerful advocates for public support for those in need—take the American organization, Bread for the World, for example, a tireless and creative coalition of Christian and other organizations.

Food waste is increasingly a focus in discussions about hunger. Moral outrage and shame goes with an increasing appreciation that the basic reason for hunger today is not lack of food—there is ample food to feed all citizens of the world today—but its distribution and wise use. Enormous waste is part of the problem: waste in homes, restaurants, and schools, as well as huge losses between harvest and production and the market. This, combined with poor nutrition (and increasing consumption of meat and fish with their environmental consequences), are growing concerns within religious communities. Exploring how to address food waste drawing on both religious traditions and institutional capacities was an important focus of the G20 Interfaith Forum September 26-28 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many good ideas were tabled, with calls for follow up and action. 

Charitable and humanitarian programs are an essential part of the path to Zero Hunger and they are what might be called the “bread and butter” of religious communities. Some are especially inspiring. To cite just one example, a Hindu monk, Chanchalapathi Dasa, stunned an interreligious forum this week (the Community of Sant’Egidio gathering in Bologna, Italy) with a fact-filled presentation about a program that feeds 1.7 million schoolchildren every day across India. Through a foundation that started on a small scale in Banglalore, today the Akshaya Patra Foundation works with government and private institutions to run programs on an almost unimaginable scale.

The tangible, painful reality of hunger is thus an intrinsic part of poverty and suffering. It is a problem we can identify and understand with tools available to us today. And it is a challenge that with will, creativity, and resources, can be solved. It is an area where religious institutions can and should very much be part of the solution and where there are visionaries and heroes who can show the way.

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