Tag Archives: hunger

Seven billion and counting

There’s been a ton of coverage in the news this week about the birth of the 7 billionth baby on Earth. The Atlantic put out a beautiful and haunting photo series on the subject, and every media outlet has covered it.

There’s a weird kind of tone to much of it. Some people want to be hopeful—yay! it’s someone’s birthday—but we all know this is not exactly cause to celebrate.

To me, seeing all the newscasts together, I can’t help but think of them as the opening credits to some sort of sci-fi thriller, in which the audience learns that this particular event was the final straw before everything went to hell in a handbasket. The truth is, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll sustain life on this planet at the rate we’re going. Not only in terms of population, of course, but all the ancillary bits that go along with living with 7 billion (and counting) other souls on a planet with finite resources—food shortages, water shortages, climate change, too much waste, pollution and all the social problems that result.

Scientific American published a fascinating story exploring the maximum human population that the earth can sustain (10.1 billion according to UN demographers).

But it was seeing the World Food Program’s “News Flash” on the subject that really hit home for me.

Twenty-five per cent of the one billion hungry are children.

It’s sobering stuff with no easy solutions, though it seems clear that the model of endless growth and mass consumption can’t continue indefinitely. To read more about what this week’s birthday celebrations mean on the food front, check out the WFP’s list of must-read articles on the subject here.

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Hunger on Sesame Street

When I was a kid everyone knew Sesame Street. We all had our favourite characters (mine=Mr. Snuffleupagus) and could sing the songs and, even into high school and university, remember the skits. It was considered innovative and educational (so parents didn’t feel badly about plopping their peeps in front of the box) but it was also part of my generation’s shared popular culture because there wasn’t anything else on TV. Today, with hundreds of channels geared toward kids, it’s just one of many shows (educational and otherwise). My own children don’t know Sesame Street at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly influential.

Sesame Street, in fact, is  still going strong spreading neighbourhood cheer, literacy skills and lessons on how to get along in the world. Last week Sesame Workshop introduced a new character named Lily, a 7-year-old who tells the Sesame Street gang about what it’s like to not have enough food to eat on a special program called “Growing Hope Against Hunger.”

Lily is intended to speak for the 17 million American kids who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. It’s a pretty tough topic to take on for 2-8 year olds but the message is hopeful as she visits a community garden and visits with other characters.

Sponsored by Wal-Mart and other corporations, the tone is sweet and age-appropriate (“Everyone can help” and to the children living in poverty “You are not alone”) but I have to wonder about the underlying message that food pantries and food drives will solve hunger (“If we all work together”).

Food banks/pantries came into common use in the 1980s but, in fact, hunger and poverty have increased since that time. I’m not saying they don’t help families and children out in emergency circumstances. They do. And there are many good people spending a lot of time and energy trying to make sure these places are respectful and offer healthy, culturally appropriate food. But to suggest that food handouts are solving hunger is simply not true.

In fact, I think saying this encourages a kind of complacency on the part of all of us. What we hear is that the problem is being dealt with and we can go back to collecting cans and hoping for the best. We conveniently forget the messy reality that there are  structural reasons for hunger and poverty, and the root of those reasons lie in policy and political decisions made by governments. It’s a harder slog to affect political will than to donate canned corn, but if we’re going to change the circumstances of those 17 million school kids (and millions more elsewhere), we have to ask tough questions about why hunger and poverty exist in the first place. And we have to challenge our governments to do something about low wages and inadequate social supports, about creating affordable housing, health care and child care.

Some will say Sesame Street isn’t the place to begin that conversation, but the power and impact of children’s TV programming is clear. Think of all those little girls dressing up like Hannah Montana or the Disney Princesses. Or remember your own childhood.  I can’t be the only person who still sorts out how a bill becomes a law by remembering that seminal Schoolhouse Rock! episode on the subject.

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Filed under Kids and food, School gardens, School lunch

What’s for lunch in Peru?

In my research for What’s for Lunch? I read about many incidents of food poisoning in school lunch—including lizards and snakes found in the meal in India, and contaminated peanut butter in American lunches.

Last week, there was terrible news out of Peru that three children in an Andean village died and nearly 100 others were poisoned when their school lunch of rice and fish was contaminated with rat poison. Apparently, the container used to prepare the food had been previously used for mixing up a rodent-killing cocktail.

It’s a dreadful story and like other stories about food poisoning will make parents and children fearful about eating school lunch. (What it should really do is make governments, school food suppliers and regulators think carefully about what they are serving children.)

But I was interested to learn that a meal was being offered at all. Most Peruvian children aren’t given a hot lunch in their schools, despite the fact that there is a great deal of both poverty and malnutrition in the country. There is at least one government program offering a breakfast for school-agers of prepackaged biscuits and a fortified “milk-like beverage”—a supplement that apparently improves both school performance and attendance. There are also other, more piecemeal projects run by charitable organizations. But most children  go home and eat a late afternoon meal with their family.

The lack of a school meal, I learned in my research, is mostly economic and political (there isn’t the money or the will), but also the challenges of universal feeding in a mountainous country and a response to a very specific cultural milieu.

I heard a lot about the link between food and culture when I was in touch with people at a fascinating Peruvian organization called PRATEC. Champions of indigenous Peruvian culture, PRATEC works with Andean communities to ensure that their history, language and traditions (of which food and agriculture is a huge part) are integrated into the school system (among other places).

For this organization, it’s all about altering the focus away from strictly “Western knowledge”  toward valuing local knowledge. So children learn about traditional agricultural techniques and seed saving, they learn Andean songs, stories and recipes, they talk to their elders to ensure their culture is passed on—instead of passed over.

The “milk-like beverage” and fortified biscuits of the school breakfast program, for instance, while possibly improving attendance, is hardly the kind of breakfast Andean people have been serving their children for thousands of years. And  if families were asked, they would no doubt tell a quite different story about their children’s nutritional needs—rooted in their experience, traditions, lifestyle and connection to what grows on their land.

These highly packaged, processed offerings may make sense in emergency situations, but PRATEC and others would no doubt argue that they’re not appropriate for children—Andean or otherwise— over the long term.

PRATEC’s story (and that of the Peruvian school lunch tragedy) is a reminder that school lunch is about so much more than just filling bellies. It can promote or deny a community’s culture, it can convey to kids that they matter—or that they don’t.

(I’ll be back with more on this when I look at the Home Grown School Feeding project in Ghana soon.)

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Filed under Kids and food, School feeding, School lunch

Talking about hunger with kids

Last week I wrote about the famine in East Africa. But how do we make sense of such catastrophic events with children? How do you explain to your kids—in a classroom or at home—that we have enough food to feed everyone in the world but five million children die of hunger in the developing world every year?

It’s not easy. When my kids’ school hosted a hunger banquet two years ago, we all (parents and teachers) struggled not to feel hopeless or powerless, to provide context and also to go farther in our analysis of solutions than simply “you need to donate to international food agencies” or “donate to the local food bank.” While that might make sense in the short term, much larger and more systemic changes are necessary if we are really going to challenge hunger in our lifetimes.

For some ideas about how to talk about these issues, check out the WFP’s recently revamped website with its excellent resources and country profiles aimed at students and teachers. It’s also got resource links, examples of schools taking action on hunger issues, and classroom activities such as a math exercise in which kids in Grades 4-6 learn about what it’s like to live on less than $2 per day.

I’m also continually adding to my Resource page aimed at teachers and parents interested in the food system, including issues of  hunger, malnutrition and food justice. Check it out here.

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Filed under Kids and food, School feeding, School lunch

Famine in the Horn of Africa

Donate to WFP at http://www.wfp.org

I’ve written before about the school feeding program in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, where some 300,000 people are crammed into an area intended for far, far less. Malnutrition, overcrowding, and problems with sanitation and access to potable water are common. The World Food Program provides a fortified corn-soy (CSB) porridge at the schools so kids can focus on their work (also as encouragement to attend, though only about 50% of kids in the camp go because the facilities are so inadequate).

Well, since I last wrote about it, things have been getting worse. Much worse. The most severe drought in 60 years is causing a food crisis and malnutrition. According to the WFP:

“The number of people in the Horn of Africa requiring food assistance… is expected to rise as high as 10 million in coming weeks…”

That’s an increase of about 4 million people needing help during this especially severe drought, made even more difficult because of conflict and high food prices. More and more hungry people are flooding into these camps (journalist Ben Brown calls it a “vision of hell”), and the WFP—which relies on individual donations—is looking at a serious funding shortfall.

I don’t think emergency food handouts (like fortified porridge or biscuits, or here at home food banks) are the answer to hunger in the long term, but right now thousands of children and their families could go hungry and die unless the world responds. Read more about what some are calling a famine in East Africa here and here. And please consider donating to the WFP.

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Filed under Kids and food, School feeding

What’s for lunch in Egypt?

Like so many people all over the world, I’ve been riveted by the powerful ongoing story out of Egypt about how popular uprising and the organizing strength of young people (the median age of Egyptians is a stunning 24 years old—that’s 17 years younger than Canada) has successfully brought down Mubarak’s autocratic regime.

But in all the talk about why and how and what it all means, I have seen little about the role of the food crisis—despite initial suggestions that soaring staple prices were at the heart of the unrest. And less, still, about how children are faring through all of this.

But according to the World Food Program, which provides food for education programs in the country, things have not been easy for kids. With nearly 20% of the country living on less than $1/day long, there are many, many vulnerable families. Last week WFP reported that over the previous few days, it had offered emergency food to 3,000 schoolchildren and their families, providing 15-day rations—mostly fortified date bars—plus a one month advance on take home rations in the form of 10 kilograms of rice.

Egypt does have a national school feeding program offered to about 5 million students a year who can show their need and attend school at least 85% of the time. According to the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, with the assistance of the WFP, the program offers younger children milk and biscuits, while older students receive more substantial “sweet pies.”

The school feeding program has been around since 1951 and has a progressive approach aimed at investing in girls, encouraging them to attend school by providing food and take home rations, and combating child labour through school food incentives.

But the political crisis has obviously shaken the country to its core. School feeding isn’t the only thing that is on shaky ground. The world will be watching to see how Egypt puts itself back together again.

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School lunch in Haiti

It’s been one year since the earthquake that killed 200,000 people and devastated Haiti, and the situation in the island nation continues to be difficult. Last week’s presidential election, according The Globe and Mail featured “massive irregularities,” much of the capital has yet to be rebuilt and some 3,500 Haitians have reportedly died of cholera since the fall.

With thousands of schools destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, the already-fragile education system— let alone school lunch— is still recovering.

That’s where the World Food Program comes in. Working in partnership with the Haitian national school canteen program, WFP will feed school meals to 1.1 million kids across the country this school year.

image from The World Food Program http://www.wfp.org

The meal is basic: usually rice and beans. If the school has extra money they’ll add some meat, fish or vegetables. At some schools, there are also take-home rations. It is often the only meal these kids have all day.

An innovative pilot project is also working at providing fresh milk from local dairy farmers for some schools. The benefits are two-fold: the program provides a ready market for farmers who are part of the dairy cooperative; and children at the designated schools receive two bottles of fresh, healthy local milk each week—something they’d be unlikely to enjoy otherwise. Now that’s a win-win situation.

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