Fasting for the poor and hungry

March 31, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps  </span>
    According to the UN, last year more than 925 million people — one in seven people — around the world were undernourished. A large percentage of those people are children. Photo: Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps

For the last four days, I've been helping fight hunger by changing my diet. I've chosen a diet similar to that of many of the people Mercy Corps works with around the world: basic staple foods like rice, beans, greens and a bit of fruit. And I'm not alone in this — it’s part of a much broader effort to fast as a way to highlight to the plight of the poor.

In my fast, I join a group of more than 30 organizations and 4,000 individuals in a collective effort to form a circle of support around the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people by fasting to call attention to the very real challenges facing them.

What has called me and many others to undertake this collective action? Well, those of you who’ve read my blog before may know a bit about the years of work and effort Mercy Corps has been putting into ending world hunger. This work has gone beyond our field programs and involved active efforts here in Washington to ensure that U.S. policies are designed to support cost-effective, proven programs to help families and communities around the world to gain food security.

We made a lot of progress, leading the U.S. government to commit $3.5 billion to global programs to reduce hunger, and to the development of Feed the Future, an ambitious program to build food security worldwide. Unfortunately, the pitched budget battles in Washington now threaten to undo everything we have achieved. In fact, recent legislation in the House of Representatives — H.R. 1 — would cut funding to Feed the Future by over 75 percent, eliminating programs that can help between 11 and 14 million small-holder farmers feed their families, and cutting vital child nutrition programs that reach four million children at risk of sustaining permanent physical and mental damage due to stunting.

As Mark Bittman of The New York Times writes, “In 2010, corporate profits grew at their fastest rate since 1950, and we set records in the number of Americans on food stamps. The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all American households combined, the effective tax rate on the nation’s richest people has fallen by about half in the last 20 years, and General Electric paid zero dollars in U.S. taxes on profits of more than $14 billion. Meanwhile, roughly 45 million Americans spend a third of their posttax income on food — and still run out monthly — and one in four kids goes to bed hungry at least some of the time.”

This situation is even worse in most of the countries where Mercy Corps works, where poor people spend up to 80 percent of their income on food.

Yet every day, arguments about why this matters for U.S. national security, and about why it matters for our own economic growth seem to be falling on deaf ears as the U.S. Congress aims to cut the budget. While fiscal responsibility is a good thing and ought to be encouraged, the kinds of cuts that aim mainly to balance the budget on the backs of the world’s poorest people are not only morally unacceptable, they are shortsighted and unwise.

Since we have tried to persuade the Congress by all the other means available, many of us decided to fast in order to call increased attention to the impacts that the proposed cuts would have. Fasting is a way for us to show our commitment to these issues, and to symbolically show that we are willing to sacrifice so that fewer people have to go to bed hungry.

I hope many Mercy Corps staff and supporters will join us. You can become part of our circle of support by joining in the fast (this could be skipping a meal a day, taking water only for one day a week, or taking the $2/day challenge by committing to eat on $2 a day like many of the world’s poor do). At you can learn more about this effort and join with us.