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Armed for a Battle to Feed the World

October 22, 2009 By:
Ruth Messinger
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Ruth Messinger

We live in a world that has more than its share of inequity and injustice. Thus, we have to decide -- as citizens of this country and the world -- whether and how we can open our own eyes, challenge ourselves and, most importantly, not allow ourselves the convenience of being overwhelmed.

While nobody can tackle all of the world's problems alone, we can learn about the issues and think about which ones we might most effectively take on. And it is up to us -- members of the world's most privileged society, citizens of the world's most vibrant democracy -- to champion these efforts, to extend ourselves beyond what feels natural, and to help build a global society where all people are in control of their destinies.

At American Jewish World Service, we've decided to spotlight global hunger. Our "Fighting Hunger From the Ground Up" campaign is an effort to raise awareness in the Jewish community about global hunger's political underpinnings, and the fact that there is a tremendous amount we, as a community, can do about it.

Every six seconds a child dies from starvation or a hunger-related cause. The news media would have you believe that there is a huge global food shortage. But last year, the global cereal harvest was more than twice the amount consumed around the world. The problem is that not enough of the food is being produced in the right places, for the right reasons, by the right people.

Global hunger exists not because we cannot prevent it, but because we will not. We are too content to live in a society where policy-makers see food as a commodity, not a human right. A bushel of wheat grown in Kansas is bought and sold many times over before it makes its way to your local supermarket. And the farming conglomerates that grow this wheat receive subsidies from our government to maximize profits. The more they grow, the more they profit.

What happens to the surplus? It's shipped to the poorest nations, usually through U.S. government agencies by U.S. shippers at significant cost to the taxpayers. Much is sold to merchants below cost or given in-kind to governments, which are also looking to profit. By the time much of this surplus food travels around the world and reaches store shelves, it is still out of reach for a family surviving on a dollar or two a day.

Who else loses? The small- and medium-scale local farmers, who can no longer compete in their own backyards because huge American corporations have flooded the markets with their underpriced products. People who have farmed their whole lives can no longer compete for market share and often are forced to migrate to large urban slums where they have no survival skills.

When there is not enough local food production, people are almost completely dependent on food aid. Entire communities live at the mercy of foreign-exchange rates, the weather, political stability and the price of oil.

Our approach at AJWS is specific and deliberate. We focus on supporting grass-roots, community-based projects aimed at increasing farming capacity, and advocating for policies that level the playing field between the developed and developing worlds, and that empower communities. We help smaller organizations that have a vision for their own improvement, that are pursuing their own route to greater justice and equity. We provide them with financial aid, technical assistance and sometimes skilled volunteers.

And we have seen it work. For the past 15 years, the Rural Organization for Social Education has been organizing landless women and marginal landholders of India's Tamil Nadu state into farming collectives. ROSE helps them gain access to land and high-quality seeds; it enables them to share resources; and it gives them the tools to teach one another how to cultivate herbs and vegetables through organic farming.

With AJWS's support, ROSE has trained 16,000 women to enhance the nutrients in their soil, irrigate crops, manage pests and raise livestock. These techniques help them keep costs down, improve soil quality, preserve land, produce affordable food and generate income. Farmers trained by ROSE often see 15 percent to 20 percent increases in food production, while reducing costs by 75 percent on average.

If we are really going to join the struggle, we must recognize that we are responsible for the stranger, and part of a global society. The person who could, one day, find the cure for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or breast cancer might be that underweight child holding an empty bowl right now in a Port au Prince slum.

Our actions have consequences for those around us and for those who will inherit the planet from us. And when we take heed of that fact, when we use our collective influence and affluence, when we take action to repair the world -- that is how we honor the good fortune we have to be living in the United States in the 21st century with food on our own tables.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service. This piece is adapted from a talk she recently gave at Haverford College.

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