Thursday, April 17, 2008


There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.

* * *

In the last few months, a lot of us have been worrying about how we're going to afford to fill our gas tanks.

During this same period, increasing numbers of people are worrying how they are going to afford to fill their stomachs.

"The rapidly escalating crisis of food availability around the world has reached emergency proportions," the director of the U.N. World Food Program (the world's largest humanitarian agency) said recently. World Vision Australia head Tim Costello called the situation desperate and chronic: "It is an apocalyptic warning."

World Bank President Robert Zoellick holds up a bag of rice at the opening press conference of the World Bank-IMF spring meeting. (Photo courtesy of the World Bank)

International Monetary Fund managing director Dominic Strauss-Kahn says if food prices continue to rise there will be dire consequences. "Hundreds of thousands of people will be starving," he said.

* * *

In the United States there has been a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months.

Any increase in food costs sets up a simple equation: give something else up to pay for food. "I was talking to people who make $9 an hour, talking about how they might save $5 a week," said Kathleen DiChiara, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. For some, that means adding an extra cup of water to their soup, watering down their milk, or giving their children soda because it's cheaper than milk.

It is even harder in much of the rest of the world.

In Bangladesh, a 2-kilogram bag of rice now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family. Poor people in Yemen are now spending more than a quarter of their income just on bread. The price of wheat has jumped 120 percent in the past year, meaning that the price of a loaf of bread has more than doubled in many places. It is typical that the poor spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food.

* * *

Food riots have erupted in Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and the Philippines. There have been tortilla riots in Mexico, protesting the rising price of corn. In Indonesia, ten thousand people demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Jakarta after soy bean prices rose more than 50% in a month and more than 125% over the past year. There was a general strike in Burkina Faso after the government promised to control the price of food but failed. Thousands of troops have been deployed in Pakistan and Thailand to guard trucks carrying wheat and flour.

In Egypt, rioters have burned cars and destroyed windows of numerous buildings as police in riot gear have tried to quell protests. At least seven people have died there in fights, or of exhaustion queuing for subsidized bread. In Cameroon, at least 24 people killed and 1,600 people arrested in February in food riots. Haiti's prime minister was ousted over the weekend following food riots there where at least four were killed and twenty wounded.

* * *

Do you remember when the Department of Agriculture came out with its annual hunger statistics in 1999, showing that Texas was near the top?

George W. Bush, then running for president for the first time, responded defensively: "I saw the report that children in Texas are going hungry. Where?" he demanded. "No children are going to go hungry in this state. You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas."

(You would think so, wouldn't you?)

Are we--those of us with high-speed internet connections and the leisure to read and write blogs--living in the same kind of dream world? Do those who are suffering realize how little the privileged (to whatever degree) even know about what is happening in this world, even in our own countries?

* * *

As I think about these issues, I keep getting stuck on metaphors of abundance directly related to nourishment: I am fed up. I have had enough.

As Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says, "We've had 10 major sets of food riots across the world. So if you want something which should be close to our global agenda... [it is] how do we contribute to better food security around the world." The idea of a politics of the fork never seemed so important.

But this time, it is a lot less clear what we can or should do. Assisting starving people in the short term is not nearly as complicated as confronting the root causes of world hunger and poverty.

* * *

Richmond Bread Riot, 1860s

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UPDATE: Also check out this insightful post .


Amy O'Neill Houck said...

It seems a bit crazy that there's money to pay guards to follow grain trucks, but not money to feed that grain to the poor.

Mouse said...

While I'm very careful to remain mindful of the fact that I am more privileged compared to people in other countries - its a scary thing to watch week after week as there is less and less in the grocery store that I can afford to buy for my family. I live on a VERY limited income and its sort of creepy when 'generic' rice cereal (not that brand name chocolatey marshmallow glop) is a LUXURY in my home.

The Purloined Letter said...

Yes, Mouse! What an important point. While the degree of suffering may be far greater for many others, what is going on for a lot of us (the readers of this blog) is pretty darn difficult itself. I know a lot of folks are worrying about paying their bills, their mortgage, their grocery tab. Thanks very much for bringing this to the discussion.

JulieB said...

At least some of the wheat shortage can be put down to seven years of harsh drought in Australia. We're one of the world's largest wheat producers and there just hasn't been enough production. Part of that is natural cycles, and part is the changing climate conditions worldwide. No amount of money can make it rain unfortunately.

Lola said...

Here's one simple solution - don't make bio-fuel based on food. It's really stupid to make fuel using materials that can be used for feeding human when there are non-edible material like switchgrass that can be made into fuel. That's what's driving up the prices.

The Purloined Letter said...

Amy: some of the trucks are distributing grain to the poor--and the guards are hired partly to keep people from stealing and starting a black market with the stolen food. (This is all so ridiculously complicated!)


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