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The Underside of the Food Chain

Deciding to Do Something About It 

The Underside of the Food Chain

by Vicki Garlock 

Potlucks. Catered events. Happy hours. Home-cooked family dinners. Farm-to-table menus. Carry-out eateries. Fine dining establishments. Many of us enjoy a cornucopia of food options on a regular basis. We can also testify to the social nature of eating with others.

I am reminded of a conversation with a friend when discussing her first silent Zen retreat. “It was really amazing, but I found mealtimes difficult. It was really odd to make a meal together without speaking, and then we all sat down around the table and ate without uttering a word!” Food is widely recognized as a great way to bring folks together, and it’s no coincidence that food and food practices are part of every major religious tradition. But lurking behind our weekly trips to the farmers’ market and our book-marked reservation web sites are the ever-present problems of food insecurity and world hunger.

World Hunger

 The statistics, however familiar, bear repeating. About 795 million people (roughly 1 in 9) suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2015, reports the State of Food Insecurity in the World. That means the number of hungry people in the world exceeds the population of the U.S., Canada, and the European Union combined, as the stories from Action Against Hunger attest.  

Nearly all the world’s hungry live in so-called ‘developing’ countries; however, some of the statistics for more industrialized countries are also sobering. For example, Feeding America estimates that in 2015 more than 40 million Americans struggled to find the next meal for themselves or their family. Go here for more statistical details.

Kwashiorkor – “The Sickness the Baby Gets when the New Baby Comes”

As you might expect, children are disproportionately affected. Severe malnutrition, officially diagnosed as either marasmus or kwashiorkor, is seen in about 17 million children worldwide and results in the deaths of about 1 million children under the age of five every year. The tragic nature of these conditions is underscored by the meaning of the word “kwashiorkor,” a Ghanaian word that is roughly translated as “the sickness the baby gets when the new baby comes.”

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange – Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The numbers are even more sobering when one considers the effects of hunger on other illnesses. Malaria, pneumonia, and measles are all more likely to result in death when malnutrition is a factor. When viewed this way, undernutrition accounts for over 3 million childhood deaths annually, or roughly 45% of all childhood deaths in any given year.

Starving Amidst the Plenty

Hunger-related non-profit organizations agree that the world produces enough food for everyone. This conclusion is based on a statistic known as “kilocalories per capita per day.” (Kcal is the symbol of kilocalorie. One kilocalorie is equal to 1000 calories.) By the late-2000s, the world was producing about 2800 kcal/person/day, despite an increase in the world population. So clearly we’re dealing with a distribution problem, an issue that takes a variety of forms.

Many people in “developed” countries are consuming significantly more than their “fair share.” For example, in Italy, Turkey, Portugal, and the U.S., average daily caloric consumption in 2009 was 3500 kcal/person/day. But even when food is effectively transported to countries in need, military conflicts, politically-influenced resource control, and regressive economic systems all contribute to inadequate food delivery. All those factors are further exacerbated by hunger itself. By causing poor physical health, decreased energy levels, and lowered mental functioning, hunger reduces people’s ability to learn, work, and effect change.

 Climate change is also being recognized as a contributing factor. Many non-profits like Feed the World  and Action Against Hunger work with resident populations to identify and implement sustainable practices. Equipped with knowledge about animal husbandry, farming techniques, and the local ecosystem, these non-profits offer the hope of ongoing food security and self-sufficiency for those they serve. Unfortunately, shifting patterns of drought and flooding brought on by global warming undermine this work and require adaptations in farming communities that are already small and struggling.

Interfaith Connections

Interfaith groups are perfectly positioned to address the ongoing problem of world hunger. Every major faith tradition has something to say about giving to those in need. From the Asian traditions (the Vedic religions, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism), we have the concept of dana. Often translated as “the giving of alms,” dana also refers, more broadly, to “cultivating generosity.” The Jewish tradition has tzedakah, routinely associated with “charity,” perhaps even “obligatory charity.” But the Hebrew word tzedek literally means “righteousness, fairness, or justice.” In the Islamic tradition, we have zakat. As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it is viewed as obligatory alms-giving, but the Arabic word more fully means “that which purifies.” And we have caritas, a Latin word often translated as “charity” in the Christian tradition. But the more expansive definition? Love for all.

Volunteers at the Interfaith Food Center in southern California – Photo:  interfaithfoodcenter.org

Volunteers at the Interfaith Food Center in southern California – Photo: interfaithfoodcenter.org

One way to honor and embrace our shared humanness is to recognize the common chorus underlying these terms. Every single person attending an interfaith event should understand the importance of reflecting on our prosperity, expressing gratitude for our bounty, and remembering those in need. In fact, these might be the most important concepts offered by the world’s faith traditions. Interfaith gatherings, in and of themselves, serve as tangible reminders that we’re on the Earth together. And food, whether it be readily available or sorely lacking, strikes a chord in all of us.

Amazing faith-based food rituals including Hindu Prasad, Muslim iftars, Sikh langars, Jewish seders, and Christian eucharists exist because they offer a path for communing with the Divine and connecting with the divine nature residing within each of our neighbors. So relish in the joy and delight that food offers. Just remember: If your religious community is not helping you bring more generosity and love and fairness to the world, then you need to find a new community.                                                           

Header Photo: Action Against Hunger