By Ash Kosiewicz, Content Producer, World Food Program USA
On the first episode of World Food Program USA’s podcast, former journalist and author Roger Thurow asks himself a haunting question: “What took me so long to really focus and get involved in this issue?”
The reflection seemed tinged with regret, yet fraught with a chance at redemption.
The issue in question was hunger. A UN World Food Program (WFP) staffer shared with Thurow what it was like to look into the eyes of someone dying of hunger. He soon after did the same, and the experience triggered what he called a “disease of my soul.”
Before joining the staff at WFP USA, I had never heard of Roger Thurow. I hadn’t spent much time focused on hunger. My interests had shifted over time from children’s advocacy and legal aid to human rights in Latin America and community-based economic development.
Little did I know I would ask myself the same haunting question. Far from seeing the ravages of hunger with my own eyes, my awakening came from Thurow's deliberate efforts to make up for lost time.
I had two weeks before starting my new job to learn more about global hunger and the fight to end it. Inspired by Hacking Hunger, I bought two books that Thurow wrote after his moving experience: Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in the Age of Plenty (“Enough”) with co-author Scott Kilman and The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change (“Hunger Season”).
Over morning coffees, short bus rides, and weekend sojourns, I started my crash course. Across hundreds of pages, I experienced a flurry of emotions. By the end, I was sold on at least one of Thurow’s realizations: “This is one story I can’t walk away from.”
This is what I felt and learned along the way.
As I flipped through the opening pages of “Hunger Season,” I was transported to small plots of land known as shambas in Western Kenya to meet Francis Wanjala Mamati, a 53-year-old farmer who planted beans, corn, and bananas on three acres of land.
Francis was a man with big dreams.
His retirement from the government gave him the modest means to buy his land. After years of mediocre harvests, he joined One Acre Fund, a social enterprise that connects smallholder farmers with seeds, fertilizer, knowledge, and markets for their crops.
For the first time, he was able to marry the power of his faith and work ethic with the tools and opportunities to make the fruits of his land a source of strength, not disappointment.
In turn, his vision for the future transformed — from one of persistent hunger to one of potential prosperity. From wanting to send his two oldest daughters to college to study fashion design to helping all of his children graduate from high school, Francis’ fruit trees, crops, and livestock represented more than income and sustenance. They were his ticket to their prosperous future.
"If there was one thing he could give his children, it was education,” Thurow writes. “His farming would prepare that gift."
Francis’ story was a remarkable window into the life of a farmer in a part of the world still foreign to me.
Praying for the right amount of rain at the right time amid rumors of drought, he often had to think two or three steps ahead to manage what he could not control. A good harvest meant he would likely be able to feed his family, pay for school, buy clothes, and cover medical expenses. A bad one meant something would fall through the cracks, driving him to work harder and go the extra mile.
Reading “Enough,” I felt similarly when I learned the seeds of the Green Revolution were planted in Mexico, a beautiful country with a rich indigenous cultural history. Beyond being known for the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan and the paintings of Frida Kahlo, Mexico is where American scientist Norman Borlaug ushered in a new era of agricultural productivity that led to soaring crop yields in almost every part of the world.
Borlaug was sent to Mexico in 1943 by the U.S. government to figure out why wheat crops suffered from rust blight. Committed to finding a new breed of wheat, he traveled back and forth from the central highlands outside Mexico City to the Yaqui Valley near sea-level Northwest Mexico, testing new varieties in two different climates to take advantage of multiple growing seasons every year.
Through “shuttle breeding,” he developed a rust-resistant wheat seed that was desensitized to environmental changes, helping it survive in habitats around the world. The innovation helped end famine in parts of Latin America and Asia.
“By 1960, much of the developing world seemed destined for starvation …” Thurow writes. “Borlaug’s wheat came to the rescue.”
Almost 60 years after Borlaug’s breakthrough in Mexico, roughly 14 million people went hungry during the 2003 famine in Ethiopia.
It was during this time, in the Boricha region of the Ethiopian highlands, that Thurow came face to face with the human toll of hunger while documenting the emergency food operations of the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
In “Enough,” he describes a small girl carrying her baby sister toward an international aid station with barely enough energy to reach out for food.
"Her dark, frightened eyes were desperate,” Thurow writes. “Please, they beseeched, something to eat, anything at all. In a famine, the starving speak with their eyes."
In my lay mind, famine meant there wasn’t enough food to feed the hungry. But experts suggest famine exists when three conditions are met: At least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope; the prevalence of acute malnutrition exceeds 30 percent; and death rates exceed two deaths per 10,000 people per day.
To my surprise, there was a lot of food in Ethiopia one year before the famine. The country had one of its best years ever, totaling 13 million tons of grains and cereals thanks in part to innovations of the Green Revolution. Many grain warehouses in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa, including that of Chombe Seyoum, a farmer profiled in “Enough,” were filled to the brim.
So why couldn’t farmers like Chombe in Addis feed the small girl and her baby sister in Boricha?
- Given Ethiopia lacked a robust export and internal market for surplus grains, the price of grain fell dramatically the previous year. Many farmers consequently reduced their food production in 2003 because the costs of doing business exceeded what they could earn by selling their grain.
- Many farmers lacked storage facilities to house their grains and cereals. When coupled with low prices and the drop in food production, food stocks were lower than they should have been.
- What food was available in cities like Addis couldn’t reach rural areas of famine because there was no infrastructure to connect them. The domestic market for food was broken.
How perplexing. Farmers had the tools to improve their livelihoods without the complementary systems to leverage their power. Though investments were made to unleash the potential of smallholder farmers decades prior in other parts of the world, Africa missed the boat. And millions of people in Ethiopia were affected.
“Beyond the harvest gains, certain vital aspects of the Green Revolution never made it to Africa,” Thurow writes. “There had been no investment in rural infrastructure to enable the movement of crops from where they were plentiful to where they were scarce, no development of markets so farmers could get fair prices, no financing to support farmers, no subsidies to cushion them against price drops, no crop insurance to compensate them for weather disasters. The political will to finish the job of ending famine had evaporated in Africa.”
I flipped furiously past the halfway point of “Enough” to understand how the world responded to the indignity of famine in the 21st century.
Almost 30 years after food was widely spoken of as a human right at a World Food Conference in Rome, the famine in Ethiopia exposed all that had been left undone
“Striking an optimistic tone, the delegates concluded that political will was all that stood in the way of achieving this goal,” Thurow writes. “Civilization already possessed the resources and technology to end hunger; there could be enough for everybody.”
In reality, this will had been absent long before that moment in 1974 when 135 countries came together to declare that no man, woman, or child should experience hunger or malnutrition.
In 1846, peasant farmers suffered through the Great Irish Famine after they were denied employment by their landowners without recourse from their British leaders. The famine changed the lives of roughly two million people — half died, while the other half emigrated — and its impact in Ireland was felt for more than a century.
“Our families are really and truly suffering in our presence and we cannot much longer withstand their cries for food,” Thurow writes, citing a letter from tenant farmers to their landowner. “We have no food for them. Our potatoes are rotten and we have no grain.”
The list of infamy would continue. In 1967, famine spread during the wars of independence in Nigeria. Seventeen years later, drought struck Ethiopia in 1984 when hundreds of thousands of people died from hunger. And 20 years after that, a tsunami in Asia left more than two million people in need of food assistance.
Hunger wasn’t an Ethiopian problem.
It wasn’t an African one either.
It was a global tragedy.
“For the Irish, the growing hunger in the world was particularly unsettling,” Thurow writes. “Had the world learned nothing from their suffering? Had they learned nothing from their own long road of recovery that they couldn’t put to use on behalf of hungry people elsewhere?”
I chose to return to where I started: The Lugulu hills of Western Kenya.
The farmers in “Hunger Season” reminded me that a fire of promise resides far from the grand halls of decision-making that no politician can quell. They were the ones making decisions to strengthen their communities and end hunger in Kenya, irrespective of how the wind blew in other parts of the world. With the help of One Acre Fund and each other, they were experiencing their last hunger season.
For Leonida, her resolve to fight hunger meant more than ending her own.
Serving as a model for her community by inspiring others to apply new farming techniques, fighting to keep her kids in school, and creating new ways to increase her income, she envisioned a future where hard work actually paid off.
“Leonida surveyed her shamba, and she saw the future,” Thurow writes. “Once the last of the sugar cane was cut, the field would be a vast, green sea of maize in the long rains season, and assorted vegetables in the short rains. She imagined the bags of food filling her bedroom and storage sheds. But there was still work to do. Leonida bent deeply again and hacked at the soil with herjembe [hoe]. Here is where she would bury the Wanjala [the hunger].”
For Francis, his hard work was rewarded — harvesting 12 bags of corn on just one half acre of land — his best result yet. While his birth during the hunger season conferred upon him the name Wanjala per local custom, his eldest son Geoffrey’s wish to lift it from his name was at long last becoming a reality.
“Francis was surrounded by his children and grandchildren, as he sat in the shade of the avocado tree,” Thurow writes. “When [his wife] Mary served dinner, just after nightfall, the adults moved into the living room. She had set the table with her nicest dishes and silverware, and they gleefully dug into a feast of meaty chicken with tomato and pepper stew, rice and a traditional ugali made from sorghum and millet. Francis beamed. He was proud to see his clan gathered together, eating so well.”
Fortunately, they were not alone in their commitment to a world without hunger. From Ireland to Illinois, a chorus of new voices have joined the fight. Students, politicians like Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, celebrities like Bono, and entrepreneurs like Andrew Youn of One Acre Fund have come together to start initiatives and campaigns to end hunger, eradicate disease, and cancel poor-country debt to the world’s largest economies. Some have fought back efforts to cut U.S. funds for global agricultural development and food security.
“It is easy to look at the hunger crisis and be overwhelmed,” Thurow writes. “But the vast scope of the hunger problem is equaled by the vast possibility for solution — and the vast opportunities to jump in and help, be it governments, corporations, universities, philanthropists, or concerned individuals.”
And so ended my crash course in hunger.
I had covered a lot of ground in a short time, but I knew I had only scratched the surface.
I still had so many questions. There were so many stories to tell, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
So why did it take me so long to really focus and get involved in the issue of hunger?
I’d say it has much to do with my privilege and the ignorance that lies therein. I take food — and the invisible work being done to keep this foundation of life whole for everyone — for granted. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of eating without thinking, throwing away food unconsciously, and being disconnected from a beautiful and complex earth from which our food is harvested.
In the end, it’s a recipe for understanding hunger solely through the lens of my own experience, without seeing the ways in which cultures and peoples around the world build their dreams on a foundation of real or imagined sustenance. It obscures the possibility that each of us could connect with the most vulnerable people in the most remote corners of our world, through the grace and dignity of nourishment.
After all, food is what brings me together with my closest friends and family to talk about what really matters in life.
Thurow showed me that the fight to end global hunger is a fight worth fighting with others around the world. Now I had the choice to do my part.
So I downloaded the Share the Meal app.
I subscribed to Hacking Hunger.
And I went to work.
I would love for you to join me. Think about it, and let me know what you decide.
Roger Thurow's latest book, The First 1,000 Days, will be released on May 3.