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Feeding the Hungry
Are there ways to connect Jesus’ words to feed the hungry with today’s global food crisis? Yes – and Christian leaders can point the way.

With rising food prices and record-high fuel costs in Canada and around the globe, Canadians are beginning to feel the pinch. We’re thinking twice about driving to the corner store, drinking fewer expensive lattés, and working over our grocery lists more carefully. For most of us, it’s nothing drastic; we’re just looking for ways to shave a few dollars off the monthly budget.

The pinch we’re feeling, however, is nothing compared to the drastic effects being felt globally. At-risk families who were already spending two-thirds of their income on food to begin with, have literally nothing more to spend. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, one-third of all people—200 million—are undernourished because of food shortages. Of those, more than three million (mostly children) are expected to die of hunger and related illnesses.

Pause for a moment to think of implications of those numbers, and it’s pretty sobering. As Christian leaders, we have a role to play, to help our constituents connect the dots between Jesus’ words to feed the hungry and today’s global food crisis. To help you, we bring you below current statistics, resources and ideas for action, along with exclusive interviews with author Ron Sider, youth specialist Kara Powell, and five other global leaders.

The global food crisis is a complicated issue, and its solution is complicated too. It’s our job to remind people that even amid the complexities, individuals can indeed be catalysts for justice and generosity.

by Staff, World Watch

What’s the best way for the Church to get engaged in a crisis half a world away? WorldWatch talked to leading thinkers and food specialists to get their insights.

Speaking out

Dr. Ron Sider (RS), best known for his best-selling books, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, says he is first and foremost, “a Canadian farm boy.” He is currently professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry & Public Policy at Eastern University, Director of the Sider Center on Ministry & Public Policy, and President of Evangelicals for Social Action.

…most of the people I’ve met who care deeply about the poor have seen poverty face-to-face.

World Watch (WW): How can Canadian church leaders make the global food crisis relevant to their constituents?

RS: I think it’s a combination of information and experience. [Firstly,] more information about the  reality of more and more people in poor countries in desperate straits… Our preachers and our leaders [need to be] talking about it, publishers and editors writing about it, getting the information out.

The other part is to help people understand more clearly what the Bible says about the poor. There’s just hundreds and hundreds of verses… I don’t think there’s one preacher in a hundred who preaches as much about the poor as the Bible does. That’s simply unbiblical.  It’s unfaithful. In some sense it’s heretical.

I think a wise use of trips by key leaders to contexts of poverty, where we see first-hand the devastating effects of poverty and malnutrition are also useful. You don’t want to just promote junkets for the rich. But most of the people I’ve met who care deeply about the poor have seen poverty face-to-face.

WW: What are the root causes of the Church’s apathy?

RS: It’s partly that our preachers are not preaching in biblical ways. It’s partly that we’ve had an unbiblical understanding of Christianity that leads to cheap grace, and seems to put all the emphasis on just saying the right words and repeating the right formula and then we’re saved.

But that’s not what the New Testament talks about. The New Testament talks about conversion and radical transformation when we come to Christ. Salvation includes sweeping changes that the Holy Spirit brings, not just in our personal lives but in our relationships with other people. So we need a more biblical understanding of the gospel and salvation.

WW: Jesus is pretty clear about what our attitudes and actions should be when it comes to caring for others.

RS: He says if you don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked you’ll go to hell.

WW: Do our individual efforts really make much difference?

RS: They make a difference. If you give $500 to a Christian micro-loan agency, they’ll make a loan to a poor person who then typically increases their family’s standard of living by 50 percent within a year. And that loan is re-loaned the next year and it goes on and on.

But we also must understand that structures make a difference… Affecting how your members of parliament vote in terms of increasing economic foreign aid, those kinds of decisions are crucial. International trade is enormously important. We have, as rich nations, structured international trade in a whole variety of ways that benefit us and hurt poor nations. Those are the structural things we need to pay attention to.  It’s not an either/or. You don’t do just the structural or just the personal. You do both.

Dr. Kara Powell (KP) is Executive Director of the Center for Youth and Family Ministry, Assistant Professor of Youth, Family and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, and co-author of Deep Justice in a Broken World.

WW: Why is it important to help youth understand the desperate needs of the world?

KP: As I survey Scripture, I am stunned by the frequent references to God’s justice. I define justice as righting wrongs. In order to right wrongs, we have to understand not only what is happening, but why it’s happening. And then we have to partner with indigenous people to offer solutions that are more than short-term band-aids but truly represent long-term, systemic transformation.

WW: What is the best way to motivate youth to serve those in need?

KP: As we surveyed 50 exemplary youth leaders, we heard the following: Teenagers are motivated when youth leaders engage their heads, their hearts, and their hands.  Often youth ministries rely on one or two of those connection points with students, but the most effective transformation happens when students are mentally stretched, emotionally engaged, and then given practical application steps.

WW: What are some practical things youth workers and parents can do to engage young people in issues such as the global food crisis?

KP: Create space to process what kids are experiencing as they engage in world issues. Make sure you give opportunities before, during, and after kids are involved in serving, for them to share their feelings and process what they have experienced. That way they’ll connect the dots between feeding a homeless person on Sunday, and sitting and having lunch with a new kid at the school cafeteria on Monday… Teenagers are more involved if issues of injustice are relevant to them, if they build relationships with those that are mistreated, hurt or marginalized, and when their parents are also involved.

Kioko Munyao (KM) is a Sector Specialist, Food Security and Policy Development with World Vision Canada. Born in Kenya, he has a long history of working on food security issues.

WW: Contrast the impact the food crisis is having on the average Canadian with the average Kenyan.

KM: In Kenya, a larger proportion of the population lives below or just above the poverty line, so a large percentage of their income is dedicated to food. Any increase in food prices leaves them without much option other than to reduce their consumption or change their diet to less costly foods. In contrast, most Canadian households dedicate a smaller percentage of their income to food. Any increase in food prices can be met by adjusting the disposable household income. 

In addition, Kenya has no social welfare scheme. Those who cannot afford food [must] depend on community social ties—either relatives or friends. In Canada we have food banks, welfare and employment insurance.

WW: What are your deepest concerns as they relate to the food crisis?

KM: My deepest fear concerning the food crisis is the long-term prognosis. The current situation will not get better unless appropriate policies and a longer-term strategy are put in place.

WW: How is this crisis affecting children?

KM: We’ll see increased school drop-out rates, malnutrition, poor school performance and child labour. The longer-term effect of this is an increase in destitute children begging in the streets and prone to exploitation because of the loss of family protection.

Walter Middleton (WM) is Vice President, Food Programming and Management Group, for World Vision International.

WW: How does the current food crisis compare with previous food insecurity situations?

It has been referred to as a silent rolling tsunami…

WM: According to the World Food Programme, the high food prices are creating the biggest challenge the WFP has faced in its 45-year history. It has been referred to as a silent rolling tsunami… This crisis is much larger in scope and is affecting the urban poor as well.

WW: What are you seeing on the ground now?

WM: We are seeing more people being pushed into poverty and hunger. Several countries have already experienced food riots. People are eating less. Higher food prices lead poor people to limit their food consumption and shift to even less balanced micro-nutrient deficient diets.

The good news is that there is an overwhelming collaboration between the various non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations and churches attempting to eradicate this global food crisis.

WW: What can Canadians and church leaders in Canada do to help in this crisis, and to help prevent situations like this in the future?

WM: The food crisis is a global issue and not a temporary phenomenon. It will be with us for many years. Key stakeholders—developed nations such as Canada, NGOs, faith-based organizations and churches—need to join forces to minimize the effects of higher food prices on the poor and hungry.

For the short-term, people from developed nations need to give generously so food can be provided. For the medium- and long-term, we need to provide seeds and tools so that farmers, especially small farmers, can start producing more food.

We need to build and improve storage facilities to reduce post-harvest losses, to improve market access by constructing/rehabilitating roads from farm to markets, to advocate with governments to invest more in agriculture, and to expand pre-school and school feeding programs so that the most vulnerable are taken care of.

Finally, Canadians should encourage their government to advocate for an end to subsidies, tariffs and bio-fuel production.

Jim Cornelius (JC) is Executive Director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of church-based agencies working to end hunger in developing countries.

WW: How informed are Canadians about this issue?

JC: Many Canadians are aware that rapidly rising food prices are hurting poor consumers around the world. However, because Canadian consumers have largely been protected from the effects of rising food prices due to the rising value of our dollar and the relatively small amount of our family budgets that we spend on food, the public has not felt the effects at a personal level.

WW: How are Canadian Christians responding?

JC: From my perspective, Canadian Christians are not entirely sure what should be done. The causes are complex and solutions not always clear. Governments and international agencies are still wrestling to identify solutions and actions. Individual Christians realize that structural solutions are needed and these must take place at the global and national level. They are not sure what role they can play as individuals or congregations.

In the short-term, additional funds are being raised to maintain critical feeding programs for the most vulnerable… Some Canadian Christians are also examining how their lifestyles and consumption may be contributing to the food crisis. Others are asking what they can usefully demand of their political leaders.

WW: What should Christian leaders be doing to motivate people to become engaged?

JC: Issues related to food and hunger are at the very heart of scripture… When someone is hungry, we are implicated… The gravity of ignoring the hungry, the poor and the disposed is repeatedly emphasized. When issues of food and hunger become part of the public conversation, it becomes an excellent opportunity for Christian leaders to draw on these rich teachings to connect the Christian faith with the realities of the world… The Book of Genesis alone has a year’s worth of sermons concerning food and hunger.

WW: What steps can we take to encourage our political leaders to respond to the food crisis?

JC: The global food crisis requires national and global action. The Government of Canada has provided an additional $50 million in funding to help meet some of the immediate food needs. This was a good first step. However, much more will be required. It is essential that our government leaders hear from citizens, and from churches and Christian relief and development agencies that more is expected.…I am confident that this government will take further action if it hears a strong message from the public.

Wesley Charles is the Country Director of World Vision Haiti.

WW: How badly has Haiti been hit by the food crisis?

WC: The global food crisis has affected virtually all layers of Haitian society. It’s impacted the farmers who lost their crops during last year’s floods, and who now rely mostly on imported food to survive. The professionals with the same level of income or salary can’t afford the increased price of imported food. Even business people have had their incomes decrease because of the reduction in purchasing power of their clients.

WW: What factors have contributed to Haiti being so deeply affected?

WC: Many factors: the floods last year that destroyed a large portion of the crops, the increasing rate of unemployment in the country, and the slow response of the Haitian government to the recurrent needs of the local population have all had a negative impact.

WW: What is it like for people there?

WC: For a population in which the majority live on only $2 per day, their condition has worsened. This level of income can’t provide even a basic meal once a day for a family of five.

Efforts to decrease malnutrition are being jeopardized. World Vision managed to get malnutrition rates down in some areas from 35 percent to less than 15 percent but today, such gains are at risk. 

Dr. Alfons Weersink (AW) is a professor in the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph.

WW: How long has this food crisis been in the making?

AW: Years. There are several long-term factors that have resulted in stock levels of the major crops shrinking. And with demand gradually outpacing supply over the last several years, it’s now come to a head.

WW: Help us understand the factors that contributed to the crisis.

AW: There are two major long-term factors on the demand side. One is the increasing consumption from growing economies, particularly China and India. A second long-term demand factor is bio-fuel policy and the approximate 25 percent of U.S. corn production that’s taken out of the food system and used in making ethanol, and similarly with some of the oil seeds, used to make bio-diesel. And then [food] supply has been relatively flat… But this is a time of relative abundance. So it’s these demand factors that are pushing prices up.

I think there’s also the role of index speculators into the market [which] has played a role in the dramatic rise in food prices.

WW: Is that largely North American-driven?

AW: Yes. Because most of the prices on the world market are established at the Chicago Board of Trade. And that is a futures market where people buy and sell, essentially a contract on what they think the price will be…Provided that nobody’s manipulating the market, high prices in and of themselves are not a bad thing. They indicate that maybe there’s a shortage and we should be producing more, or there’s too much and nobody wants it.

But what has happened in the last couple of years is that pension funds have come into the market and they don’t react in the same way. They don’t react to the underlying demand and supply fundamentals. And they take a position in the market, regardless of what the underlying fundamentals suggest will happen to price. And the fact that so many dollars have come in, that’s pushed the price up.

WW: What is the long-term outlook?

AW: I think that the situation will start to correct itself… Maybe the silver lining in having this dramatic rise in price is it makes people aware of the plight of the poorest people in the world.

WW: What are some things Canadians could do to make a positive difference?

AW: Supporting programs like World Vision. I think those types of things provide some support for the poorest people and that’s where a bigger impact can be made. That’s a direct contribution to alleviating someone’s hurt, rather than indirectly through our consumption choices that might have a minimal impact at best.

For more references and information, please see the World Watch Newsletter [PDF].

Originally published in World Watch, July/August 2008.

Related articles

Staring into the Face of Hunger
A partnership of 15 church-based agencies has developed the concept of a food study tour to bring the reality of hunger closer to home.

The High Cost of Cheap Food
Using bio-fuel harms the poor in many nations.  If we want to love our neighbours, as Jesus commanded, we should reduce our energy consumption.




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