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Hunger Bytes: Blogs & Musings

I Refuse to Give Up

by Katie Cook

On May 23rd, 2017, US President Donald Trump released a proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018. It was no surprise to anyone that this document severely slashed funding for hunger programs at home and abroad. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, described it as an assault on poor and hungry people everywhere.

You have probably seen the numbers. The budget plan cuts more than US $1.7 trillion from safety-net programs in the US. It will, without any doubt, take food out of the mouths of children, elderly people and disabled people. The administration wants to decrease foreign aid spending by one-third and fold the US Aid to International Development department (USAID) into the State Department.

These plans were announced at the same time that we were getting word about four looming (if not outright) famines in Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. United Nations (UN) officials say these famines will result in the largest food crisis since 1945. In the face of these realities, I feel outrage when I realize that my country’s leaders care so little for the most vulnerable people in the US and the world.

But this is not the first time I have felt like this.

Between the 1980s and 2008, the anti-hunger community saw some progress toward ending hunger in the world, although it seemed sluggish to many of us. The number of people who died each day from hunger had shrunk from a reported 38,000 in the mid-1980s to 25,000 (depending on whom you asked and what criteria they used) in 2008.

A UN summit in the year 2000 had chosen eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—aims for cutting global poverty in half by 2015. Some gains had been made toward the eight goals, which included eradicating extreme poverty, providing education for everyone in the world, empowering women, reducing child mortality, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

But the petroleum crisis of 2008, brought on largely by the war in Iraq, caused food prices to skyrocket. The ensuing crisis set the anti-hunger movement back a decade or more. The global recession was exacerbated by floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and extended droughts across the globe. During that year, riots broke out in a number of countries where the scarcity of food grew and the prices of food spiked.

Although fewer people have died from hunger-related causes in the past few years, more and more people (climbing to almost a billion) were at risk for food insecurity and undernourishment. In 2009, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global climate change alone could increase the number of undernourished people by between 40 million and 170 million.

We can see that happening in the Sahel region of Africa right now. One of the major causes of the current famines is crop loss due to drought. And one of the major causes of that drought comes from greenhouse gases produced in the Western Hemisphere.

But, even given the current situation, and given the loss of ground from the 2008 crisis, there has been remarkable progress. In 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that 38 countries had met the MDGs, and that 18 countries had also met a more stringent World Food Summit goal—to reduce by half the number of undernourished people in their countries. I’m sure this is irrelevant to people living in countries on the brink of famine, but my thinking is that, if it can be done for those 38, it can be done for the other 158.

In 2015, the UN declared a new set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, which build on the MDGs and are designed to guide development efforts through 2030. There are 17 goals, including the end of poverty and hunger, better health, quality education, gender equality, clean water, reduced inequalities and climate action.

But, now, two years later, some people in the US government want no part of such progress. Even if you don’t believe that this is just wrong, even if you don’t have a humanitarian molecule in your body, this is not wise behavior, and it is not in our own best interest. As former US President George W. Bush said, “When you have an entire generation of people being wiped out and the free world turns its back, it provides a convenient opportunity for people to spread extremism.”

The same principle is true on the domestic side. Everybody knows I’m no economist, but even I can see that economies are stronger when a larger number of people have buying power. That is one of the things I point out when people are talking about SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) benefits. SNAP benefits help people not have to decide between rent and groceries, but it also invigorates their local economies. So, again, even if you don’t give a rip about people who live in poverty, don’t you want your economy to be stronger?

But there is, I repeat, cause for hope. US legislators passed a bill a few weeks ago that provides US$1 billion for famine relief, in spite of proposals from the administration to scuttle that program. They voted to keep a number of important US safety-net programs in place.

But even if they hadn’t done that, I would refuse to give up.

I have been hearing a good deal in the media from David Beckmann recently. He and Jim Wallis from Sojourners, along with an impressive array of interfaith religious leaders, just started a fast in response to the Trump budget. They will fast on the 21st of every month until December. (The 21st was chosen because that’s when people’s monthly food assistance typically runs out.) I have decided to join the fast, in a wimpy way. I’m a heart patient, so I have to be careful, but I can at least pledge to eat simply on those days.

David’s first day at Bread for the World was September 4, 1991. The only reason I know that is it’s the same day that I started working for Seeds. About 10 years after we started, he was passing through my town, and he called me. We went for dinner, and he said, “Do you think we’ve accomplished anything in all these years?” He seemed discouraged.

He’s probably even more discouraged now. In the past few months, I have imagined him asking me that same question. Do I think we’ve accomplished anything? I hope so. We seem to have gone back to Square One several times in the past 26 years. But never mind, David. We’ll start again if we need to. I wasn’t called to do this work only if I could see the results. I was called to be faithful. We may not see the end of hunger in God’s world in my lifetime, but I’m not going to quit now.

—Katie Cook is the editor of Baptist Peacemaker, Hunger News & Hope and Sacred Seasons.

Here are some things we can all do in the face of this:

1. Pray, and consider joining the “For Such a Time as This” fast. (Go to You’ll find a toolkit there.)

2. Share the information you have with others, and incorporate the care for vulnerable people into your worship. (Seeds has resources for this. Go to for more information. Lots of other people have resources as well. Your denominational office may have fabulous resources you’ve never tapped.)

3. Write your legislators and tell them that it’s important to you that people don’t go without food, shelter, healthcare or education. (Bread for the World has an Offering of Letters for this. You can go to and download an excellent toolkit.)

4. Find an agency where you live, like a food pantry or homeless shelter, that serves people in need. Volunteer in an area where you have actual, real contact with the clients. This is vital to the spiritual health of people like you and me.

(This reflection was originally posted by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America
on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.)

Why People Always Bring Food

by Katie Cook

Something profound and mystical happens to human beings when they eat together. In the book Friendship Cake, Lynne Hinton discovers a profound truth about sharing food. Four women have journeyed from a rural southern town to a cemetery in the north, where their friend Louise is lingering at the new grave of a deeply loved woman. The weather is freezing, yet they sit patiently near the grave with Louise. One of them has brought a pot of steaming soup and five bowls.

Holding the bowl of soup in her lap, Louise asks, “Why is it that when you’re feeling the least like eating, people bring you food? … I mean, why don’t folks bring you casseroles when things are going great? … Why, when someone has died, does everyone suddenly have to bake a cake?”

One of the friends answers: “I think we do it because it’s all we’ve got. … Words are empty. There sure aren’t any presents to buy, but everybody’s got to eat, so we feed each other. It’s the basic, most humane way to say you care.”

While they continue to sit out in the late December cold, she goes on to say, “It’s a silly ritual, I agree. But somehow it helps to remind ourselves that life goes on. We sit together. We remember. We eat.”

Then one of the women reminds Louise of her own words, spoken about the deceased friend. “In your words, it’s just doing what love does.”

Good Sheep and Bad Goats?

by Gary Gunderson

The crowded little kitchen steamed from boiling stew and newly-washed dishes. The director—maybe shepherd is closer—interrupted the explanations to greet the guests by name as they eased nervously in the door. Everything in the room was bruised—the paint, the pans, the tables and the spirits.

A soup kitchen is a curious and ironic blend of food and failure, charity and desperation, warmth and embarrassment. It is the over-simplified symbol of hunger in America. Most of us try to look into the eyes of the street people to catch a glimpse of what it is like to be so vulnerable. We wonder what moves them and how they survive.

But another drama is played out in the eyes of the servants. For it is a hard-hearted time that mocks the worth of the weak and patronizes those who minister. What moves those who serve?

Politics is not the moving force. I’ve never met anyone making peanut butter sandwiches for hungry people who cared much one way or another about federal deficits. And dipping soup is not the way to glory and wealth. Why would someone spend their Tuesday morning or Friday night working for free in a soup kitchen instead of visiting friends, watching TV or playing with the kids?

People serve for reasons that mix curiosity and compassion. But many move from their pain toward the pain of others. They move from their sense of vulnerability and loneliness to the vivid need of the hungry. The soup is spiced with community: “you may need food, but I’ve needed things, too.” This is no parody of the last judgment with the good sheep feeding the bad goats. There are only people—some who need to eat and some who need to help.

Compassion is the clue. The word comes from Latin, meaning “to suffer together.” We can recognize ourselves in hungry people and we suffer with them. It is our wounds that empower us to heal.

Although everyone else was impressed, Jesus didn’t like to make a big deal out of feeding people. The people were hungry and he knew what that was like. The Jesus who was on his way to the cross said, “I have compassion for these people….“

You catch an echo of those words amid the pots and pans of hundreds of soup kitchens every day of the week.

—From the Sprouts edition of Seeds Magazine, January 1984.  Gary Gunderson was the Seeds editor.

It's All about the Feast

by Katie Cook

I have been, for better or worse, a major “simplify your life and feed the poor” voice, in my community and in publications, for about 30 years. So, when I recently showed the movie Babette’s Feast to a group of college students at my church, one of them, William, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I want to know why a Franciscan is showing me this movie.”

Babette’s Feast came out in 1987, so I don’t think a spoiler alert is absolutely necessary. (I mean, really; if you haven’t watched it by now…) The film, based on the book by Isak Dinesen, is set in a Protestant village on the remote and mostly frozen coast of Jutland in 1871.

Babette Hersant, a highly acclaimed Parisian chef, is forced to flee from counter-revolutionary violence in France. She ends up in the little coastal village and becomes the cook for two pious spinsters, who know nothing about her past.

Just before an important anniversary for the local church, Babette wins the lottery and asks for the pleasure of preparing a banquet for the occasion. She spends all of her lottery winnings on one beautiful and sumptuous feast for the community. The result, to me anyway, is magical.

But there I sat, at that college retreat, wondering what to say to William. He had a very good point. Why was a Franciscan showing those students this movie? Why do I love this movie? What in it makes me cry tears of joy every time I see it?

I mentioned this recently to John, my Franciscan brother, and he simply said, “It’s all about the Feast.”

It’s all about the Feast.

It’s ALL about the Feast.

When a voice in my head says, “Shouldn’t Babette have made more prudent use of her money?” another voice says, “Shouldn’t this money have been used to feed the poor?” And I think of the story of the woman in the gospels who uses an expensive ointment to anoint Jesus’ feet.

What are we supposed to do with this dichotomy?

Yes, for those of us who care passionately and profoundly about the world’s impoverished people, it IS about sharing and consuming less, so that there will be enough for everyone.  It IS about figuring out what is too much for me, and how that affects my soul.

But it’s also about the Feast.

There’s something here I can’t articulate. I can only touch the edge of it.  I can’t see the whole picture. I can’t make it form clearly in my mind. But there’s a reality there beyond all of the other realities I know. It makes me think of Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s “Rumours of Glory.” One of the lines says, “Something is shining, like gold, but better.”

Here’s another example of what I think was a glimpse of that elusive reality. There was a television show on ABC about 13 years ago called Nothing Sacred. It was about a Catholic church in a rough neighborhood in New York City.

In the second episode, a couple in the parish is getting married, but the groom—who happens to be on staff at the church—has forgotten to book a place for the wedding dinner.

He has also forgotten to tell the soup-kitchen staff that, since he forgot to book a place, he made arrangements for the wedding food to be delivered to the church. So the staff, thinking it is a generous donation to the soup kitchen, serves it to the street folks who come in that day.

The couple has a huge fight, and the bride threatens to walk out.

The pastor, Father Ray, manages to get the wedding party upstairs to the church, and while the wedding ceremony takes place upstairs, the soup-kitchen staff are in the downstairs hall, improvising a wedding supper from whatever they can find in the kitchen.

Then the electricity goes out. They find boxes of candles and light them, and suddenly the hall is not so shabby looking. A volunteer finds two pheasant dinners someone has donated, and they arrange to serve them to the bride and groom. They somehow find enough food for everyone.

Finally, because of all of the truly concerted effort that has gone into the supper, what began as a disaster becomes a beautiful event. It becomes a joyful feast.

We eat together. We find new recipes and try them out on each other. We put flowers on the table. We enjoy the food, the presentation, the nourishment. We work ourselves half to death trying to find ways to make the world a place where everybody can do that.

We’re all connected in the necessity of food. We try our best to share with our brothers and sisters—ALL of our brothers and sisters.

It’s all about the Feast.

—From “Feasting Together So That None Shall Go Hungry,” the 2011 Sacred Seasons Hunger Emphasis worship packet, Seeds of Hope Publishers.

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