On May 23rd, US President Donald Trump released a proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018. It was no surprise to anyone that this document severely slashed funding for hunger programs at home and abroad. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, described it as an assault on poor and hungry people everywhere.
You have probably seen the numbers. The budget plan cuts more than US $1.7 trillion from safety-net programs in the US. It will, without any doubt, take food out of the mouths of children, elderly people, and disabled people. The administration wants to decrease foreign aid spending by one-third and fold the US Aid to International Development department (USAID) into the State Department.
These plans were announced at the same time that we were getting word about four looming (if not outright) famines in Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen. United Nations (UN) officials say these famines will result in the largest food crisis since 1945. In the face of these realities, I feel outrage when I realize that my country’s leaders care so little for the most vulnerable people in the US and the world.
But this is not the first time I have felt like this.
Between the 1980s and 2008, the anti-hunger community saw some progress toward ending hunger in the world, although it seemed sluggish to many of us. The number of people who died each day from hunger had shrunk from a reported 38,000 in the mid-1980s to 25,000 (depending on whom you asked and what criteria they used) in 2008.
A UN summit in the year 2000 had chosen eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—aims for cutting global poverty in half by 2015. Some gains had been made toward the eight goals, which included eradicating extreme poverty, providing education for everyone in the world, empowering women, reducing child mortality, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
But the petroleum crisis of 2008, brought on largely by the war in Iraq, caused food prices to skyrocket. The ensuing crisis set the anti-hunger movement back a decade or more. The global recession was exacerbated by floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and extended droughts across the globe. During that year, riots broke out in a number of countries where the scarcity of food grew and the prices of food spiked.
Although fewer people have died from hunger-related causes in the past few years, more and more people (climbing to almost a billion) were at risk for food insecurity and undernourishment. In 2009, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global climate change alone could increase the number of undernourished people by between 40 million and 170 million.
We can see that happening in the Sahel region of Africa right now. One of the major causes of the current famines is crop loss due to drought. And one of the major causes of that drought comes from greenhouse gases produced in the Western Hemisphere.
But, even given the current situation, and given the loss of ground from the 2008 crisis, there has been remarkable progress. In 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that 38 countries had met the MDGs, and that 18 countries had also met a more stringent World Food Summit goal—to reduce by half the number of undernourished people in their countries. I’m sure this is irrelevant to people living in countries on the brink of famine, but my thinking is that, if it can be done for those 38, it can be done for the other 158.
In 2015, the UN declared a new set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, which build on the MDGs and are designed to guide development efforts through 2030. There are 17 goals, including the end of poverty and hunger, better health, quality education, gender equality, clean water, reduced inequalities and climate action.
But, now, two years later, some people in the US government want no part of such progress. Even if you don’t believe that this is just wrong, even if you don’t have a humanitarian molecule in your body, this is not wise behavior, and it is not in our own best interest. As former US President George W. Bush said, “When you have an entire generation of people being wiped out and the free world turns its back, it provides a convenient opportunity for people to spread extremism.”
The same principle is true on the domestic side. Everybody knows I’m no economist, but even I can see that economies are stronger when a larger number of people have buying power. That is one of the things I point out when people are talking about SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) benefits. SNAP benefits help people not have to decide between rent and groceries, but it also invigorates their local economies. So, again, even if you don’t give a rip about people who live in poverty, don’t you want your economy to be stronger?
But there is, I repeat, cause for hope. US legislators passed a bill a few weeks ago that provides US$1 billion for famine relief, in spite of proposals from the administration to scuttle that program. They voted to keep a number of important US safety-net programs in place.
But even if they hadn’t done that, I would refuse to give up.
I have been hearing a good deal in the media from David Beckmann recently. He and Jim Wallis from Sojourners, along with an impressive array of interfaith religious leaders, just started a fast in response to the Trump budget. They will fast on the 21st of every month until December. (The 21st was chosen because that’s when people’s monthly food assistance typically runs out.) I have decided to join the fast, in a wimpy way. I’m a heart patient, so I have to be careful, but I can at least pledge to eat simply on those days.
David’s first day at Bread for the World was September 4, 1991. The only reason I know that is it’s the same day that I started working for Seeds. About 10 years after we started, he was passing through my town, and he called me. We went for dinner, and he said, “Do you think we’ve accomplished anything in all these years?” He seemed discouraged.
He’s probably even more discouraged now. In the past few months, I have imagined him asking me that same question. Do I think we’ve accomplished anything? I hope so. We seem to have gone back to Square One several times in the past 26 years. But never mind, David. We’ll start again if we need to. I wasn’t called to do this work only if I could see the results. I was called to be faithful. We may not see the end of hunger in God’s world in my lifetime, but I’m not going to quit now.
Here are some things we can all do in the face of this:
1. Pray, and consider joining the “For Such a Time as This” fast. (A toolkit is available here.)
2. Share the information you have with others, and incorporate the care for vulnerable people into your worship. (Seeds has resources for this. Click here for more information. Lots of other people have resources as well. Your denominational office may have fabulous resources you’ve never tapped.)
3. Write your legislators and tell them that it’s important to you that people don’t go without food, shelter, healthcare or education. (Bread for the World has an Offering of Letters for this. You can go to Bread for the World and download an excellent toolkit.)
4. Find an agency where you live, like a food pantry or homeless shelter, that serves people in need. Volunteer in an area where you have actual, real contact with the clients. This is vital to the spiritual health of people like you and me.
Katie Cook is the editor of Baptist Peacemaker, Hunger News & Hope, and Sacred Seasons.