Thursday, November 10, 2011

Global Hunger Shabbat

Here is how I started my day.  I dropped off leftover food at a local soup kitchen.  In fact my car’s trunk was overflowing with bagels and cookies.  Only a few hours later I went to Whole Foods to get lunch.  I spent $15 for my quick lunch.  A person living on food stamps gets $5.50 per day.  Later tonight I will go home and will make dinner.  I have not yet decided what I will prepare but I will open the refrigerator and search for inspiration.  My day’s total will far exceed the allotment given to a person living on food stamps.

I am fortunate that I can buy anything I want.  I am blessed.  I may not choose to eat everything, but I am richly blessed that I have so many choices.  This afternoon I could choose between the salmon with lemon butter, Mediterranean steak, brussel sprouts or quinoa salad.  What variety will Whole Foods offer me today?  This is how we eat.

Contrast this with the pictures from East Africa.  There is a famine raging there that has claimed 10,000’s of lives.  This is only part of the larger picture.  Every day 925 million people go hungry. 98% of these live in developing countries.  One out of four children in developing countries goes hungry.  That is 146 million children.  6.5 million children die each year from hunger related causes.

As a Jew I refuse to accept that I can’t do anything to change this.  Yes, the world is broken.  And also yes, we can repair it.

The terrible irony is that the world’s farmers produce enough food to adequately feed every person on the planet.  Part of the problem is that these children are too dependent on imported food and not local farming.  Part of the problem is that the donations we send overseas undermine local food production and makes people even more food insecure.

Too often local farm lands are confiscated by governments for economic development.  Water sources become contaminated by factories.  Trade agreements sometimes have the unintended consequence of flooding local markets with cheap food imports.  Likewise food-aid programs sometimes have similar effects.  These undercut local farmers and their ability to sell their product and thereby make communities less self-sufficient.

The American Jewish World Service, with whom we are partnering this evening, is working to change these facts.  Here is one example of an AJWS grantee.  This can be found on the AJWS website.  I encourage you to visit this website and learn more about this global problem.
Jean Saint Georges is a struggling farmer who lives in a rural village in Haiti. Over the past 20 years, food aid and trade policies have allowed imports of cheap agricultural goods from the United States and other countries to flood local markets. Jean and others like him couldn’t compete with the artificially low prices of these goods and were put out of business. Many of them migrated to the capital city Port-au-Prince in search of work, but once there, they encountered few employment opportunities. It is no surprise that 1.9 million Haitians, like Jean, faced hunger even before the earthquake on January 12, 2010.

The magnitude of the loss of life during the earthquake was due, in part, to this mass migration of rural farmers to the capital. Poverty forced these people to live in poorly constructed homes on steep mountainsides.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, international donors, including the U.S. government, sent food aid to Haiti. In the short term, this food helped feed thousands of earthquake survivors who had lost everything. But it has had an unintended—and devastating—consequence on local farmers. The influx of free rice from abroad brought the price of Haitian rice down so low that Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. Because they couldn’t earn an income from their crops, they couldn’t purchase seeds for this year’s crop. As one Haitian farmer put it:  “We were already in a black misery after the earthquake of January 12th. But the rice they’re dumping on us, it’s competing with ours and soon we’re going to fall in a deep hole. When they don’t give [rice] to us anymore, are we all going to die?”

As Haiti rebuilds, it is important that international donors support local agricultural development, not undermine it. For example, the Partnership for Local Development (PLD), an AJWS grantee, helps Haitian farmers like Jean. The organization provides support to rural farmers, including seed and grain storage and training in methods to help the farmers maximize their agricultural production. In the aftermath of the earthquake, PLD also established cash-for-work programs to enable affected Haitians to earn an income. This allows them to rebuild their communities and decide.  Through PLD’s cash-for-work program, Jean and his family were able to earn desperately needed money by working on a soil conservation project and fixing a local road. With the money they earned, the family bought food and clothes. Jean also received seeds to plant corn, beans and sweet potatoes. The soil conservation project has helped to ensure that the land where he farms will be viable for years to come. As a result, he no longer fears hunger.

Jean’s experience is not unique. Across Haiti, farmers are working to strengthen local agricultural production. It is the hope of AJWS to help promote Haitian self-sufficiency.
Even in this country we have similar problems.  There are far too many people who go hungry in our very own country.  Or, who because they are dependent on food stamps, buy unhealthy food.  Organic vegetables are more expensive than a candy bar.  I am not saying you have to eat at Whole Foods.  (I certainly cannot afford to buy every lunch there.)  But our country’s food aid programs undermine the eating of healthy food.  Why buy fresh fruit and vegetable when you can buy an entire meal at McDonalds for the same price?

As a nation we should subsidize not the production of corn syrup but healthy eating.  It should not be a luxury to eat organic.  It should be a necessity.  The consequences of our diet for our nation’s future are exceedingly worrisome.

We learn from our tradition that we cannot turn away from the world’s troubles.  We especially cannot turn aside from the pains of hunger that are so near.  We will continue to support the Interfaith Nutrition Network (the INN).  We will do more and work in a soup kitchen not only on December 4th but on other days.  Our hard work begins today.

So here is what we are going to continue to do.
1. Throughout this month we will be collecting canned food.  Bring these to the office or the Hebrew School.
2. If you wish to make a monetary donation write “Social Action Fund” in the memo.  We will use these monies to help the INN purchase turkeys for Thanksgiving.
3. The office will serve as a way station.  If you have gently used clothes or books bring them to the office and I will find someone or an organization that can use them.  There is unfortunately no shortage of need.
4. If you want to volunteer on December 4th send me an email.
5. We will continue to collect leftovers from shiva.  Although we are sad that there were so many tears in our congregation this week, by tomorrow afternoon a hungry person will no longer be hungry.
6. If you are planning a simcha add the extra planning of collecting the leftovers to your to do list.

This week we meet Abraham for the first time.  Among the many traits that our tradition ascribes to him is that of hospitality.  He would always welcome travelers into his tent and offer them food.  Those who live in Israel’s desert, the Bedouins, still observe these ancient customs.  If you are traveling by another’s tent you are welcomed in and offered food and water.

We instead speed from destination to destination.  We run from house to house, play date to play date, or appointment to appointment.  We are blind to the hunger and poverty that surrounds us.  I am not suggesting that we welcome strangers into our homes.  But like Abraham we can lift the flap of the tent open.  We can open our eyes to the pain around us.  We can resolve to do more.

The great faith of Abraham was that he understood what we too often forget; one person can change the world.  And even if we don’t change the world, if we only save one life then all our efforts will be worth it.

May God grant us the resolve of Abraham to make our world better.  And even if it is only a little better then grant us the faith to say, the effort will have been worth it.

The Israeli songwriter, Arik Einstein, wrote: “Ani v’atah…  You and I can change the world, you and I.  Then all will join us.  Though it’s been said before it doesn’t matter.  You and I will change the world.  You and I will start from the beginning.  It may be difficult, but it doesn’t matter.”

Yes indeed.  You and I can change the world.

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