Fighting Hunger in Des Moines

Farmers in Asia, including this farmer in Bangladesh, have benefitted from the Green Revolution, but there is still more work to be done. (photo credit: Bread for the World)

I just enjoyed a fascinating little vacation in a place I’d never been: Des Moines, Iowa. I shared my time off with a thousand people from 65 nations. It was part of my new ethic: When invited to experience something out of the ordinary, like the World Food Prize Award Ceremony, just say “yes.”

I was there to help honor one of the prizewinners: David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, whose goal is to encourage our government to consider the needs of the world’s poor and hungry. Simply put, it lobbies for hungry people. As a friend of David’s and a longtime supporter of Bread for the World, I was invited to the festivities, which included a daylong international symposium on hunger.

The dinner conversation was curious. People shared tips on getting African villagers to embrace their new drought-resistant corn seeds, even though the kernels were yellower than normal. Someone else was excited about a new strain of rice with a “snorkel gene” so that it can grow tall enough to survive floods. And all marveled at how the chocolate cake was soy-based and still tasted fine.

Thanks to the efforts of many non-profit groups, millions of Africans, such as this mother in Zambia, have schools, clinics, and seeds with money that would have otherwise gone to interest payments on debt. (photo credit: Margaret W. Nea)

Each meal came with a speaker. There was an impressive esprit de corps, where all of us were just knuckling down to the business at hand. No one was debating whether or not our climate was warming up. One speaker summed up the sentiment: “We need to get a higher yield on the same land in harsher weather and that requires scientific progress. Drought, flooding, and pests will rise with the world’s temperatures, and the science of smart agriculture must rise with it.”

Speaker after speaker shared their experiences. Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, showed a slide of himself at the side of a feeble Norman Borlaug, the late hero of this movement. The reason why we were all in Des Moines is because Iowa is where Borlaug was born ‘ and where the World Food Prize Foundation has its headquarters. Borlaug, who bred new strains of wheat to get disease-resistant varieties with higher yields, is credited as being the father of the Green Revolution (which dramatically reduced hunger in South Asia). Seeing the photo of Raikes with Borlaug reminded me of a priest who treasured a photo of himself with the pope. With the spirit of Borlaug ‘ whose last words, “Take it to the farmer” ‘ were ever-present, Raikes’ talk was an inspiration.

The hotel ballroom was filled with giants of compassion from across the globe. Hearing former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speak, I was touched by his charisma and passion. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shared a panel with Mohammad Asif Rahimi, Afghanistan’s minister of agriculture. The topic was keeping young people interested in farming ‘ a challenge in the developed world. We, for example, have 4-H Clubs to stoke interest as fewer young people choose to work on the land. When asked about Afghanistan’s stance on this challenge, Minister Rahimi said, “Remember, in your society one percent of the people are farmers. In Afghanistan, 80 percent of our people are farmers. Encouraging young people to farm is not an issue for us.”

David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, is a winner of the 2010 World Food Prize. (photo credit: Bread for the World)

Speakers like Raikes, Annan, Gregory Page (CEO of Cargill), and David Beckmann (president of Bread for the World) filled the forum with challenging ideas. This was a gathering not of idealistic, bleeding-heart liberals, but of civil servants, scientists, and business leaders. While we appreciated Gandhi’s reminder that “Nature provides for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed,” no one questioned the fundamentals of capitalism. Market wisdom like “Predictable pricing gives small farmers courage to invest,” “Agriculture and affluence must grow together,” “You can’t eat potential,” and “Real opportunity to feed the world lies in supporting work of small and family farms” was embraced. Jo Luck (president of Heifer International) took Borlaug’s last words one step further, encouraging all of us to “Listen to the farmer.”

Along with powerful leaders, I also met heroic and inspirational pew-sitters and soccer moms like Elaine VanCleave ‘ an avid supporter of Bread for the World from Alabama. Elaine was moved to help hungry people in Africa. She personally met with her US representative, Spencer Bachus, a Republican who prides himself on his conservatism. He admittedly had never given Third World debt and its consequences on hungry people much thought. Bread for the World simply can’t motor legislation to help hungry people without bipartisan support. For debt relief to even get to first base, it needed the support of Bachus, who chairs a key committee. Elaine mobilized her neighbors, and together they educated Bachus.

Congressman Bachus eventually did more than just say OK. He enthusiastically embraced the cause, helping spearhead a multi-billion-dollar debt relief bill that gave the world’s most heavily indebted nations a chance to rise out of poverty. The human benefits of this are mind-blowing; literally millions of poor Africans now have schools, clinics, and seeds with money that would have otherwise gone to the First World for interest payments on debt. Elaine demonstrated how legislators care, how they sometimes just need to be educated on this issue, and how fighting hunger is neither liberal nor conservative. It’s simply the right thing to do in a world where there’s plenty of food ‘ and issues of buying-power and distribution are all that stand between a billion people and freedom from hunger.

When I hear people talk endlessly about “tough economic times in America,” I try to keep things in perspective. By any measure but our own, we are a wealthy nation. Our challenge is a smart distribution of our national wealth. The reality is that in the developing world, a billion people have no food security ‘ families are struggling to live on $1 a day. If your family is living on $1 a day, 70 percent of your family budget is spent on grain. There’s little concern for meat or fruit or vegetables or dessert. You need enough grain to stay alive. And when the cost of grain suddenly goes up 50 percent…that’s a crisis.

The climax of the World Food Prize festivities was under the dome of the grand Iowa State Capitol. As we arrived, a high school band snapped to attention and then played fortissimo on the capitol steps. A red carpet led through security into the legislative chamber, where the governor of Iowa welcomed senators, representatives, World Food Prize laureates, and this year’s prizewinners. Sitting between Lutheran bishops and “excellencies” such as the agriculture ministers of Burkina Faso and Pakistan, I felt like I was at a coronation.

In addition to David Beckmann, the other laureate this year is Jo Luck, president of Heifer International. Under her creative leadership, the group provides livestock, seeds, and training to extremely poor families so that they have better nutrition and can start a small business. (To learn more about David Beckmann and Jo Luck, watch this video.)

While Heifer International provides direct aid, Bread for the World is a new type of honoree. This is the first time the leader of an advocacy group has been given this prize. Advocacy, as explained in David’s new book Exodus from Hunger (www.exodusfromhunger.org), is channeling energy to change government policy for a cause ‘ rather than dealing directly with the cause. In his book, he explains how all private US aid for the world’s hungry amounts to just six percent of our governmental aid. So a drop in governmental aid of just six percent negates all the good generated by those hard-earned and well-meaning charitable contributions. Conversely, an increase in governmental aid of just six percent doubles our nation’s philanthropic will. (A common misperception among the American electorate is that we are more generous with foreign aid than we actually are. Less than one percent of our national budget goes to developmental aid.)

I appreciate Bread for the World because it has taught me the economics of hunger and structural poverty. With all my travel experience, I’ve gained empathy for the struggles of people in developing nations, but my concern used to be confused and directionless. Understanding the basics of structural poverty put my compassion into clear focus. I believe the vast majority of Americans (whether regular citizens or politicians) are good and caring people, but we often need help when it comes to putting hunger in perspective. And when it comes to the needs of the desperately poor, we can’t let overblown threats to our own security and well-being hijack our compassion.

David’s acceptance speech was inspiring. He concluded, in a soft voice that filled that grand hall, with powerful challenge: We need to change the politics of hunger. In the privacy of the voting booth, we should vote not for our economic self-interest, but for candidates who will help the hungry.

This was a great travel experience, and anyone is welcome to attend. Going to Des Moines to celebrate World Food Day, and be inspired by people who have committed their lives to feeding the world’s poor, is something that’s affordable. If you can afford a trip to Disneyland, you can afford this experience ‘ you just need to be interested. Next year on or near World Food Day (Oct. 16), Des Moines will host the 25th annual World Food Prize Award Ceremony and the Borlaug International Symposium.

While sorghum and wheat rust are not things I tend to think about, being with a thousand people dedicating their lives to fighting hunger gave me inspiration. Flying home, I was plunged back into a world of video games, People magazine, football fans, and regular Americans with fears and real personal struggles. And, as hoped for three days ago when I landed at Des Moines’ tidy little airport, I flew home a different person.

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