November 16, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

A Thanksgiving Tale: The Hungercloth

I often write and speak about the awful oxymoron, “Hungry Farmers.”  How can the smallholder farmers of Africa suffer through an annual hunger season when every morning they rise with one task: grow food for their families?

That these farmers should battle chronic hunger and malnutrition is absurd, obscene and shameful.

But there’s another awful oxymoron that deserves our attention, particularly as we near Thanksgiving and our season of feasts.  Hungry Americans.

How can anyone in this richest country on the planet, home of the mightiest farmers, breadbasket of the world, be hungry?

That millions of households here are deemed “food insecure” – unable, at some point in the year, to afford the next meal – is equally absurd, obscene and shameful.

Hunger at home and abroad are of the same cloth.  Yes, the depth of the hunger and malnutrition that I have seen in parts of Africa and elsewhere in the developing world is profoundly deeper than I have seen here.  Thanks to a sturdy social safety net, no one starves to death here, as far too many people do every day in the poorer precincts of the world.

But whether in Africa or America, I see the same pain, desperation, guilt and humiliation in the eyes of mothers and fathers.  How will I feed my family?  Where will the next meal come from?  And the same longing and despair in the eyes of the children.

I think back to one of my first conversations with Leonida Wanyama, who is among the smallholder farmers in western Kenya profiled in my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  With head bowed and voice low, Leonida told me of the bleak Christmas holiday that had just passed; all she was able to offer her family was a pot of boiled bananas.

Now, in the U.S., I’m reminded of the many food pantries preparing to distribute turkeys and all the fixings to families who otherwise wouldn’t share in our great Thanksgiving tradition, and I think of the many soup kitchens readying meals for those who have no place to eat such a feast.

In both Africa and America, I have seen hunger narrow the choices of daily living.

For the smallholder farmers with their meager crop yields: feed my family or sell some of my harvest to pay school fees for my children; feed my family or buy malaria medication; feed my family or repair the hole in my thatched roof.

For those who rely on American food banks and soup kitchens: buy food or pay the rent; buy food or keep my health insurance; buy food or pay the electricity and gas bills.

Hunger, no matter where it is, is an abomination.  It tears at families, communities, societies.  It cheats economic development.  It haunts the conscience.  Or at least it should.

Scenes from my reporting on hunger, be it at home or abroad, are seared in my mind:

In Africa, severely malnourished children clinging to life in emergency feeding tents.  Families struggling to make it through the day on a mere cup of tea.

In America, astonished teachers watching students stuffing their pockets with food at Friday lunch, even when that food was spaghetti, because they didn’t know if there would be much to eat at home over the weekend.  Children so eager to get to school they hopped off the buses on Monday morning and raced through the hallways; they were heading to the cafeteria, for school breakfast, because they hadn’t eaten much since school lunch on Friday.

A common source of hunger, of course, is poverty.  For Africa’s smallholder farmers, it is an absence of essential resources: better quality seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, financing and agriculture extension advice – the vital ingredients to grow enough food to feed a family for a year.  For families in America, it is an absence of a living wage, a lack of decent paying jobs to afford food security throughout the year.

The solutions are also similar.  They must be long-term, beyond the immediate aid, and include more community input, individual empowerment and innovative education.  The goal is for the farmers of Africa to grow as much nutritionally rich food as they possibly can and for the food insecure in America to be as productive as possible and earn enough to buy their own food.

One more common thread: Efforts to end hunger are under siege by the global financial mess.  In the U.S., both short-term safety nets and long-term solutions are threatened by budget cuts, be they food stamps or women and infant care programs or the White House’s Feed the Future initiative which focuses on improving harvests of smallholder farmers in the developing world.  The mandatory spending cuts that loom at the fiscal cliff will have a disproportionate heavy impact on poverty and hunger programs, which have already been hit in previous budget slashing moves.  Hungry farmers?  Hungry Americans?  The awful oxymoron would be extended, not ended, by such cuts.

At Thanksgiving, we know we can do better.  It is the time to commit to the last hunger season.

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.


| By Roger Thurow

1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 



| By Roger Thurow

Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.











Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 



Multimedia

Videos


 


Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »