David Lias

David Lias

“Jesus loves the little children...

All the children of the world...”

Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, the first United Nations global ambassador on world hunger, sang that familiar Sunday school song at the end of one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.

He was a keynote speaker at the South Dakota Newspaper Convention in Sioux Falls approximately 20 years ago.

Every time I hear this song, I can’t help but think that, simply because of pure fate alone, we all happen to enjoy an incredibly bountiful lifestyle.

Soon, most of us will be fill our bellies at a grand Thanksgiving feast.

You likely will later raid your fridge to munch on a turkey sandwich made of leftovers from next Thursday’s big meal.

Sadly, there are millions of men, women and, yes, children of the world, that are starving or suffering from malnutrition.

And thousands of people die every day because they don’t get enough to eat.

According to notes I gathered a decade ago after hearing McGovern’s speech, it was estimated there are 800 million people “including 300 million school-aged children” who go to bed hungry each night.

Those numbers are 20 years old, however. It’s likely a safe bet, through the combination of population growth and a global pandemic, that those numbers are higher now.

McGovern, who spoke at a conference at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell 22 years ago titled “Ending Hunger in our Time,” believed that global hunger is a problem that can be solved.

It won’t be easy, however.

“That is easy to say and hard to carry out,” McGovern said. “Over the next 25 to 30 years, if we have the right commitment on the part of leaders, we can eliminate most hunger in the world. We would like people to go away from the conference (knowing) that this is the number one international problem.”

McGovern first became interested in hunger issues in 1945, during World War II, when he saw hunger in an advanced country -- Italy.

“Today it is the best fed country in the world,” he said.

McGovern said that anywhere he goes in Asia and most of Africa and Latin America, he encounters hungry people.

“There are one out of seven people who are chronically hungry every day of their lives,” he said. “They get by on a little bowl of rice or corn meal. At the end of the day, they go to bed hungry.”

The most serious hunger problems in South Dakota include American Indians and those of low income, he said.

“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say five to 10 percent of the people in South Dakota do not have enough to eat,” he said.

Those statistics still ring true today. According to Feeding South Dakota, 13.7% of individuals in South Dakota live at or below the poverty line. One out of every nine individuals in South Dakota is food insecure. One out of every six children is at risk of going hungry.

It’s easy to blame drought, or overpopulation or an underabundance of food for global hunger.

There is one factor that is stronger than all those three and is most responsible for people going to bed with empty bellies at night, according to Peter Rosset, director of Food First/The Institute for Food & Development Policy, based in Oakland, California.

To put it simply, hunger is a man-made problem.

“Human forces make people vulnerable to nature’s vagaries. Millions live on the brink of disaster in South Asia, Africa and Latin America because they are deprived of land by a powerful few, trapped in the unremitting grip of debt, or miserably paid,” Rosset said. “Natural events rarely explain deaths; they are simply the final push over the brink.”

He noted that fertility rates worldwide are falling, and people still starve. “For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger,” he said.

Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply, according to Rosset. Enough food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide: 2.5 pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs -- enough to make most people fat!

“The problem is that too many people are too poor to buy readily available food,” he said.

Increasingly sophisticated lifestyles often distort our relationship with food: we are even able to forget that its basic purpose -- apart from the obvious pleasure it gives -- is to keep us going. Another person’s hunger is a reminder that there is something as simple as eating to live.

Yet nowhere are people guaranteed a right to food. If the presence of hunger is an affront to our notions of justice, then it is doubly unjust that those who have the least power -- the elderly, women and their dependent children, refugees, the disabled -- are the most likely to go hungry.

Former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, the main speaker at that Dakota Wesleyan Conference mentioned above, said at that time he believes we all can play a part in solving this vexing problem.

Dole said two decades ago the time is nearing when hunger will be a cutting-edge political issue in both parties. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves if Dole’s prediction has come true. Our main political parties do a lot of sniping at each other. Domestic and global hunger, however, doesn’t seem to a topic of current discussion

“If we can work it out and move forward together, we’ll save a lot of time and save a lot of people in the process,” he said. “The conscience is being awakened all across America.”

Dole and McGovern teamed up to sponsor the George McGovern-Robert Dole Global Food for Education and Child Nutrition Act of 2001, which was made a permanent program in 2002. The program, aimed at providing one nutritional meal daily to 300 million school children overseas, was piloted in 38 countries 20 years ago. At that time, it was feeding 9 million children.

It’s just a baby step in the push to find a way to alleviate world hunger.

I’m hoping that all of us can ensure that the efforts of McGovern and Dole, done so long ago, will continue to have an influence on world political policy to make food available to everyone and continue proactive steps, such as supporting sustainable agriculture, to again make food available for everyone.

Especially the children of the world.

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