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A Little Tip for Helping the Big Problem of World Hunger

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All those who were told when they were little to eat all the food on their dinner plate because there were starving children in China, raise your hands. I, who repeatedly heard that, was too young to appreciate the underlying message of such a statement, which was that we should be grateful for what food we have because there are places in the world where kids don't get enough to eat. As an adult now, I am very grateful for the abundant food we enjoy, and feel bad for hungry kids everywhere. But I also realize the reasons behind the hunger are perhaps too varied and complicated for me to understand.

Indeed, lack of sufficient food for whole populations is a problem that has its roots in more than just the presumed laziness of parents who don't earn enough money to buy enough food. If you're talking about hunger in Madagascar, for instance, you're also talking about the related issue of deforestation. And if you're talking about hunger in any other country besides America, you're also talking about receiving food aid from America, and that aid's effect on local economies.

According to the American Jewish World Service, we are the world's largest donor of food to countries in need, but that generosity has a dark side:

As one of the only countries that still ships [our] food donations around the globe rather than providing cash to buy food from within the region, too often [our] food aid can do as much harm as good. How? Through inadvertently becoming unfair competition that undercuts local farmers. Purchasing food locally makes sense: It arrives much more quickly, it’s drastically cheaper and, best of all, it helps support the local and regional farmers who are the backbone of a locally sustainable food system. If our food aid helps people in the short run, but puts farmers out of the business, then in the long run we are creating a vicious cycle of hunger.

All international food aid is determined by what is familiarly called "the Farm Bill." Reviewed on average every five years since 1965, this bill dictates everything from crop insurance premiums for farmers to administration of a facility in the Arctic Circle in northern Norway for the storage of seeds from all over the world. It was reviewed recently, and passed, by a Congress anxious to find ways to cut expenditures, to "stop the bleeding," as it were. Among its provisions were increases to donations of food commodities around the world.

Is that what is needed in light of the possibility of creating a "vicious cycle of hunger?" There are, after all, the needs of countries who, for whatever reason, are not able to produce enough food to feed their people. But there is also the need of the American farmer to offload surplus food, and the need to provide employment here for those involved in the agriculture industry, as well as the valid need to support farmers in other countries seeking to become more self-sufficient. It is, after all, quite complicated.

The bill also provides for increases in funds used to send American citizens with valuable agricultural skills to areas in developing countries that need technical assistance through the Farmer to Farmer program. More importantly, it establishes a Local and Regional Food Aid Procurement program, which allows organizations funded by the Farm Bill to purchase food through local and regional markets.

It's too early to say if the most recently passed version of the farm bill—the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012—will address those needs. Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, seems to think it will, as expressed in this Letter to the Editor of the New York Times. But only time will tell; the act will not become law before the November elections, according to Bread For the World. Congress will wait until the lame duck session—the period after the elections, but before the newly-elected Congress begins in January—to actually do anything.

So why do I tell you all of this? Does it sound too complicated to be relevant to your family's dinner table? Can you do anything to help? Once again, according to Bread for the World, there is plenty. First, of course, you can educate yourself about the issue. You can send a letter to Congress. You can blog about the issue, or share this article. That part—the helping part—is simple.

What do you think about the issue? Do you think anything can or should be done?

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.

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