Nearly 20 years ago I visited a refugee camp in Zimbabwe and was taken to see the ‘weighing station’ for babies. Even after all that time I cannot forget a tiny baby (whose name happened to be the same as mine) who was so malnourished that she hardly registered on the scales. Nobody who has seen a child who has never had enough to eat will ever forget the sight.
I smiled at the time, and congratulated Linda’s mother on her beautiful baby, who was on the path to recovery, but when I got back to the place where we were staying I wept. There is enough food for every single person on the planet to have sufficient to eat every day – and yet one billion people go hungry.
In preparation for our new campaign on food, Hungry for Change, I have re-read the story of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish that Jesus blessed, broke, and gave to the crowd of at least 5,000 people.
As often happens when you re-read a story you think you know well, this time I noticed a line that had previously passed me by. The disciples ask Jesus to send the people away so that they can go and buy food. But Jesus answers: “Give them something to eat yourselves.”
Thinking this through, I realised that Jesus is saying that we cannot sit back and wait for him to do everything. We have to contribute what we can, even if it is as small as a few loaves and fish among 5,000 people.
In this Year of Faith (launched on 11 October), we are encouraged to read the four Constitutions of Vatican II, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In these documents there is a consistent call to live out our faith in acts of charity and justice. Not to sit back and wait, but do what we can to serve our brothers and sisters.
For instance, the Cathechism quotes St John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
Gaudium et Spes also reminds us that the earth and everything in it is for all peoples, not just for a select few. It goes on to urge both individuals and governments to heed the plea of the Church Fathers: “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.”
But why are so many people – a billion people – hungry? And how can we play our part to ensure that they are fed? It is not because there is not enough to go round. God has created a world of abundance, capable of producing enough food for all. “Poverty is a scandal and hunger is an avoidable tragedy that must be tackled by fighting its structural causes,” Cardinal Rodríguez, President of Caritas Internationalis tells us.
We all know that food prices have been going up, seemingly every week. Food banks have been set up, even in a rich country like ours. When prices are high the poorest people find it more and more difficult to buy enough food to feed their families.
A lot of food is produced by small-scale farmers. But it is not easy for them to gain access to markets to sell their produce. On the international markets food prices change all the time.
It can seem as though the problems we face are overwhelming. As far back as we can remember there have been food crises. I remember the faces and distended bellies of Biafran children way back in the late 1960s.
Most of us will remember Ethiopia and Live Aid, and there have been severe food shortages in both East Africa and West Africa over the past year. Maybe, then, that’s just how the world is? Perhaps in some countries the droughts are too severe, the land isn’t rich enough, the governments are just corrupt or it is just an unfortunate consequence of war.
These may well be truths, but they are not the whole truth. As Pope Benedict wrote in Caritas in Veritate: “‘Feed the hungry’ is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods.”
Feeding the hungry will require change: on our parts, by challenging ourselves not to waste food and to buy local, sustainable or Fairtrade food; and on the part of governments and big businesses, so that profit does not become the one overriding factor above all others.
Government and business must serve humanity, putting the poorest at the heart of their concerns. By being ‘hungry for change’ we can take steps to make sure that everyone has access to enough food, and that no one goes hungry.
In this Year of Faith, we have the opportunity respond to the demands of our faith, and indeed witness to our faith, by not putting our own interests first and instead putting the interests of the poorest at the heart of our personal, social and economic decisions.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Catholic Herald