DisciplesWorld magazine ceased publication in early 2010.
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Expanding the table
Expanding the table
By Chris Herlinger
Chris Herlinger

"Hunger puts hatred in your heart."

— A child from Capetown, South Africa

You hear the concern everywhere these days — on the streets of Jakarta, where the poor struggle amid plenty in a changing society; in the refugee and displacement camps of Chad and Darfur, where those who have fled their homes in terror try to survive with a sense of dignity; in the crowded apartments of Damascus, Syria, where Iraqi refugees try to support their families with low-income off-the-book jobs and wonder what to do next.

Their worry? Food. More to the point — how to cope with what is a growing international crisis of food shortages and rising food prices.

"It's a difficult time for us," says Sadie Ebet, a leader of a women's collective in eastern Chad. Her group provides fresh vegetables and fruit to residents of a displacement camp near the city of KouKou — a necessity because even with food assistance, those displaced by recent wars affecting western Sudan and eastern Chad need to supplement their diets. (The supplemental gardens are supported with funds from American churches, including the Disciples of Christ.)

Ebet says that in recent months two kilos of rice (about four pounds) doubled in price, to almost $1.60. That may not sound like a lot of money, but it's a real hardship for the poor.

In Cambodia, rice — a basic staple throughout the world — sold for $546 per ton in March of 2008, up 68 percent from the year before.

More recently, the government of Mozambique said food prices were now so high that at least a half-million people will require food assistance of some kind. In countries like Mozambique, it's common for families to spend more than half, and even as much as three-quarters, of their income on food.

"The current situation has exacerbated an already perilous situation for tens of millions," says Maurice Bloem, deputy director of programs for Church World Service (CWS), the ecumenical humanitarian agency supported in part by Disciples funds.

The issue, say experts, comes down to security — real security, the lack of which can unhinge societies and cause panic. "As we have seen from food riots in a number of countries throughout the world, food security is national security," said Dan Tyler, who heads the Kenya-based office of CWS.

But the issue is not just security. It's more — something approaching a gospel imperative.

"I think the global food crisis is the moral and ethical issue of our time — perhaps even the major spiritual issue the church is facing," says Johnny Wray, former director of Week of Compassion, the Disciples' relief and development fund. "You cannot have the kingdom of heaven when some of God's children eat, and some of God's children don't eat."

A chronic problem

The global food crisis that began nearly a year ago and caused riots from Haiti to Egypt seemed to come out of nowhere. Just as quickly, it seemed to disappear, at least from U.S. consciousness, as the presidential campaign wore on and Americans faced their own economic hard times.

Yet the issue did not suddenly appear, nor did it disappear. In late 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said the food crisis would continue into 2009 and might even worsen, particularly in some countries.

Among the hardest hit is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which between 2005 and 2008 experienced the most dramatic rise of hunger in the world — from 11 million persons to 43 million, according to the UN, with the proportion of undernourished rising from 29 percent of the population to an astonishing 76 percent. One of the reasons for the country's rapid rise in hunger rates has been its ongoing civil war.

"Wars are fought in rural areas, and as a result rural areas have suffered," says J.B. Hoover, development coordinator of the American Friends of the Asian Rural Institute. The institute, located in northern Japan, is a training center for rural community leaders that teaches sustainable, organic agriculture techniques.

"When war hits rural areas, it makes it difficult for people to produce food," Hoover notes, resulting in displacement that causes a society to become dependent on food assistance. The result is food insecurity. "War and food security go hand in hand," Hoover says.

But the causes of the current crisis go beyond the problems of war and conflict in many countries — though we should not, Hoover says, underestimate the effects war has on the poor in countries like Congo, Chad, and Sudan.

Still, humanitarian groups like CWS have argued that most of the world's hungry are not short of food because of a disaster or crop failure but because of chronic, long-term poverty.

The problem is not merely one outside the United States. The U.S. itself "produces ample food to feed its population. Yet in 2006, the Department of Agriculture estimated that over 35 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 13 million children," notes Wally Ryan Kuroiwa, minister and team leader of the United Church of Christ's (UCC) Justice and Witness Ministries.

Seeds of a crisis

One way to understand the current food crisis is to go back to the classic rules of supply and demand. On the supply side, experts say climate change has contributed to worsening drought, limiting arable land; the rising price of fuel has driven up transport and fertilizer costs; and more people are dependent on worldwide food markets than ever before.

On the demand side, rising worldwide demand for meat in Asia and Latin America has driven up feed-grain prices. There has also been new demand for corn-based biofuels and increased speculation in global grain markets.

As Kuroiwa notes in a resolution he is writing for consideration at the UCC's General Synod later this year: "Higher prices per se are not the problem. It is the combination of higher prices and the demand for cheap food, unaccompanied with short-term help for the most vulnerable to price spikes, that worked to create the food crisis."

He adds, "If higher prices mean a fairer distribution of money between producers and markets, then this addresses a long overdue injustice in the way food comes to our tables. But presently, the gigantic market monopolies are making record profits while small- and medium-sized farmers barely make a living, if at all."

How did this happen? If you look at the overall global situation, Hoover says, the biggest shift in agriculture came after World War II, when the production of food became more global and less local, and began to be tied closely to the cost of oil and the manufacture of inexpensive fertilizers.

When oil was cheap and topsoil plentiful, food production seemed to have an unlimited future. But with the cost of energy increasing and topsoil being increasingly depleted, with the loss of land and water to industrialization, and with rural areas becoming increasingly urbanized (or suburbanized), growing pressures have led to serious problems.

Compounding the situation, Hoover notes, are growing demands on land and energy by the growing economies of China and India — changes that are also creating a transformation in diet more dependent on processed food, with less emphasis on locally produced staples.

"You put this all together and food has become more expensive, with those least able to afford it most affected by a crisis that has come bearing down on them," Hoover says.

And, as people leave rural areas and move to cities, they are also putting strains on urban areas in a cycle that can create an unhealthy and unequal relationship, Hoover notes.

Bev Abma, overseas director of the Foods Resource Bank (FRB), a Christian-based humanitarian group that partners with Week of Compassion, sees the same dynamic, in which many of the world's most vulnerable are migrating to urban areas, where they often are unable to find work and support themselves.

They are caught up in a system in which food has become an international commodity — a product of industry — rather than what it should be — holding pride of place in our common life as humans.

"Our food industry is set up on an industrial model and not for long-term food security," Abma argues.

Amy Gopp, Wray's successor as director of Week of Compassion, goes a step further, saying in a world where there is "enough food for all to live and succeed" a better term than "food security" might be "food sovereignty" — the idea that what is most important is for a community to be in control of its own food supply.

"Unlike ‘food security,' having sovereignty — autonomy, self-rule over your own land and tools and resources — means much more than merely knowing you'll have food for however long," Gopp says. "Food sovereignty also speaks to the plight of small stakeholder farmers around the world who are not — cannot — be in complete control over their food supply and production because of the ways [outside forces] have continued to control them.

"I think of ... the criminal ways some U.S. companies have sold seeds to small farmers — some of these seeds can only be used for one year. This is killing Africa. Small farmers simply cannot afford to buy seeds every single year, and yet for some, this is the only way they will survive, depending on seeds from the outside. So that certainly does not lead to food sovereignty, even though it may provide food security."

Emphasizing local solutions — such as strengthening local markets — is critical in helping communities become less dependent on the vicissitudes of outside or international forces, though FRB's Abma is careful to say that "there is no magic bullet" or easy solution to the global food problem. "Every context has its own specific challenges and opportunities," she notes.

From his perspective in Kenya, CWS's Taylor says in the future it will be increasingly important "not only to focus on one aspect of food security, such as nutrition, but on all aspects, such as ensuring people have the necessary farming inputs, such as credit and tools, at the right time for planting, training to increase yield, and adequate storage facilities to reduce wastage once crops are harvested.

"Ensuring farmers have a profitable market is an important incentive to improve food security," he adds. "Also in this new era of global warming, farmers must begin to understand what this means and collectively begin to adjust the types of crops to use as well as farming techniques."

This might provide hope, and that is critical, Abma says, because when "people lose their dignity, they lose hope."

A biblical imperative

Reclaiming dignity and hope must be at the forefront of understanding the situation, Gopp says. That's why churches must begin to see the issue of food as a moral imperative.

"This is the most critical issue we are facing today," says Gopp. She does not downplay the current economic crisis facing those in the United States and Canada. But she believes the church must expand its members' perspectives.

"People are starving elsewhere in the world, and yet our media is telling us that our home mortgages are in crisis."

In fact, Gopp argues, the industrialization of food has given those in more prosperous countries too much choice. "Our addiction to choice is killing the poor," she says.

In the light of biblical imperative, that will no longer do, she says.

"The only common story found in all four of the Christian gospels is the loaves and fishes text," Gopp notes. "Food is central. Bread. Sustenance. Eucharist. Jesus Christ's central command to the disciples in that text is, ‘Give them something to eat.' That's it. How can we enlarge the table?"

One way, she believes, is for congregations to embrace the UN's Millennium Development Goals — eight goals set forth by United Nations that, among other things, seek to cut in half the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015.

"The faith-based community has been the strongest force in the U.S. in terms of moving the Millennium Development Goals forward," Gopp notes, "yet many in our pews don't know what they are or how they're in line with our Christian values.

"It's exciting for me to think that the UN ... and the church are in sync with one another. The world and God's church are working together for the same goals! When has that ever happened?"

And, Gopp argues, it is up to the church to make the case that, at the very least, people must see food not merely as something we eat but as something sacred that binds us together, whether we live in the suburbs of Detroit or in a refugee camp in Sudan.

"For once," she says, "the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God can be aligned."