World Food Program Director on Lent

«Feeding the Hungry Is a Profound Act of Love»

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 3, 2009 ( Here is the statement Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, gave today at the press conference the presented Benedict XVI’s message for Lent.

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I would like to offer profound thanks to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for inviting the World Food Program to participate in this special event. We very much appreciate the Holy Father’s support for the work we do. And thank you Cardinal Cordes, and the Pontifical Council Cor Unum for your assistance.

By drawing our attention to voluntary fasting, as His Holiness encourages us to do this Lent, we can be helped to remember that hunger is on the march worldwide. Serving the hungry is a moral call that unites people of all faiths. Every major religion urges their believers to be a Good Samaritan and to choose to help others. The Prophet Isaiah says: «And if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday» (58:10).

I would like to assure each and every one of you that when it comes to hunger, you can make a difference. Feeding the hungry is a profound act of love, and restores dignity to a mother or father who cannot provide for their starving child. Mahatma Ghandi said that to a hungry man, a piece of bread is the face of God. Let us believe in the miracle of a world without hunger. Does not the heart of Christ encompass such a noble vision among the faithful?

And it is an achievable goal. We could cut hunger among school children virtually overnight if enough people came forward to help. The World Food Program delivers such hope to 20 million school children, working closely with various faith-based groups.

At this time of worldwide economic challenges, let us not forget that the food and financial crises hit the world’s most vulnerable the hardest. Since 2007, 115 million were added to the ranks of the hungry to create a total of nearly one billion people without adequate food. That is one in six people on earth. But this is not a problem of food availability. It is a problem of distribution — and of greed, discrimination, wars and other tragedies. There is enough food on earth for every human to have adequate access to a nutritious diet. This is indeed a challenge for the human heart.

This is a critical moment. While all families must make some sacrifices, for the poorest of the poor that means going without meals — for a day, or two, or three. This dramatic reduction in nutrition is particularly alarming for children under two years old, where it is proven that nutritional deprivation will stunt their minds and bodies for life. Today, a child dies every six seconds from hunger.

The question is: Is there anything that can be done to alleviate the humiliation, pain and injustice of hunger? Are there solutions that help people break the hunger trap for themselves, once and for all? The answer is overwhelmingly «yes.» We have the tools and technology to make this happen, and we have seen it happen in many places around the world.

Allow me to give you some examples. The World Food Program went into Darfur in 2003 when villages were still burning. Millions of people were terrorized and faced starvation. In what I call a modern day miracle, the world refused to stand by and let the displaced people of Darfur starve. Today, through the generosity of many nations — and the bravery of our humanitarian workers — WFP feeds 3 million people a day trapped far from their homes in the desolate and dangerous desert. The world has prevented — for less than fifty cents a day per person — mass starvation in Darfur.

A more recent crisis broke out in sixty nations, including Senegal, following the most aggressive increase in global food prices in recorded history last year. High prices have left an estimated 40 percent of rural households in Senegal in danger of hunger and malnutrition. The World Food Program deployed innovative programs to not only provide food to 2 million people, but also to empower them to feed themselves.

One exciting example of innovation is what I call the «Salt Ladies of Senegal.» Senegal is a food-deficit nation, but produces a surplus of salt. The problem is the salt is not fortified with iodine, and Senegal has an epidemic of iodine-deficiency disorders, such as goiter, which inflicts lasting damage on children’s minds and bodies. WFP decided to purchase all its salt from 7,000 village producers and give them the tools to iodize the salt. The result is a true win-win-win. The women have a steady income, we get iodized salt for our programs, and they also sell iodized salt now to their villages, helping to fight the disorder. An example of helping local people to help themselves, safeguarding always the personal dignity of those we serve. In fact, last year WFP bought over $1 billion in food directly from the developing world for our programs, helping break the cycle of poverty at its root.

School feeding programs have a strong track record of providing meals and other basic social services to children, while also ensuring they receive an education. There is perhaps no better example of school feeding programs than the ones we run in Afghanistan. There we have seen an entire generation of girls go to school for the first time, a dramatic change for a country that once forbade girls from attending school. We know that families are more likely to send their children to school if they will have a meal during the day. Worldwide, WFP’s school feeding programs increase school enrolment by 28 percent for girls, and 22 percent for boys, serving as an effective and affordable way to provide education and nutrition, while empowering women and girls.

Another exciting example of the power of the world to do good is in Gaza today. We have all heard about the humanitarian crisis. I witnessed it with my own eyes just two weeks ago: people who could not pick up traditional rations due to military action, and even if they had food, could not cook it. WFP issued a call for help to the private sector to find ready-to-use, highly nutritious food for the children of Gaza. Today, fortified date bars are being delivered into Gaza, with cooperation from food companies from Egypt to the Netherlands. This is a powerful example of humanity in action with a heart of love.

We need to work together. For our side, we partner with charities and NGOs around the world to ensure that we tailor our programs to local needs. Catholic charities are key partners for the WFP. For example, WFP works with local Caritas in the dioceses of nearly 40 countries, in food-for-work, health and education programs. We also work with Catholic Relief Services, where we collaborate in 15 countries.

I met Pope Benedict and was deeply moved by his commitment and compassion for the world’s hungry. Speaking just recently, the Pope called on Governments to look to the poor, especially in our day: «We need to give new hope to the poor,» he said. «How can we not think of so many individuals and families hard pressed by the difficulties and uncertainties which the current financial and economic crisis has provoked on a global scale? How can we not mention the food crisis and global warming, which make it even more difficult for those living in some of the poorest parts of the planet to have access to nutrition and water?» (Address to Diplomatic Corps, 8 January 2009). The Pope, quoting from Saint John, offers us a way forward in this year’s Lenten message: «If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him — how does the love of God abide in him?» (1 John 3:17).

Many people, especially during the Lenten season, want to know how they can help. This is manifest in the Lenten message we just heard, with its challenge to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan. Humanitarian assistance is not possible without Good Samaritans stepping
up to help people in need. Whether from the generous donations of national governments, or collections taken in churches, mosques and schools, donations to relief agencies are essential for continuing to reach hungry people around the world.

Shortly after joining the World Food Program, I launched the «Fill the Cup» campaign, named after the humble red plastic cup in which millions of children are served a cup of porridge for lunch. This simple meal costs only one euro a week, and can save a child’s life. We calculated that for $3 billion a year, the world can end hunger among school children. The tradition of voluntarily fasting during Lent, and giving the funds to charity, can make a real difference in a child’s life.

We also need national governments to take the lead. At this time of trillion-dollar financial rescue packages, we need a human rescue package. We have called for 0.7% of all stimulus plans to be dedicated to fighting hunger. Financial rescue packages must serve not only Wall Street and Main Street, but also the places where there are no streets.

Each one of us has a choice, to pass by those in need, or to take action to help others. This Lent, let us choose a hunger-free world.

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