UN World Food Program rep discusses global hunger and what you can do
// Liam Park

In North America, the majority of us are lucky enough to think of “hunger” as “that thing that happens when you forget to eat breakfast.” However, in this big, beautiful world of ours, not everyone is so lucky.

Douglas Coutts, a representative for the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) visited Capilano University on Jan. 31 to explain the real and present gravity of the world’s food situation. His lecture focused primarily on the fact that, if we don’t make it our problem now, by 2050, it undoubtedly will become a problem that will have a much more direct effect on everyone’s lives.

“[The] population of the world today is 7 billion. Our focus is on the bottom billion of the world, who are the most chronically hungry,” said Coutts. “400 million of [the bottom billion] are children more than the entire US Population.”

This bottom seventh survives, on average, on less than $1 per day, 75 cents of which goes to food. Of the 25,000 people who die as a result of hunger every day, 18,000 are children.

“People aren’t dying dead from hunger,” Coutts explained. “Usually the deaths come from preventable diseases [such as] a cold … Most of those kids that I mentioned are dying from diarrhea, which of course is not a disease; it’s a symptom.”

A large part of the explanation for this epidemic is an intergenerational downward cycle: undernourished girls as young as 12 years old giving birth to infants who are consequently undernourished. These babies are disadvantaged from the start, and their situation doesn’t get better after birth.

“It’s a one-time opportunity,” Coutts said. “If you don’t reach these children in the first 1000 days [of life], it’s not that the children are dead and die; their life span might be shorter, but the point is they never develop mentally and physically to their full capabilities.”

While the hunger tragedy grows despite the best efforts of the WFP and other aid organizations, there are victories for the activists as well. One of the major goals of the WFP is to get children in school and keep them there, especially girls.

In some countries where women struggle for social rights, WFP has begun a program Coutts referred to as “dad’s blackmail program” in which girls are rewarded with 1 L of cooking oil to take home to their family for every month they’re in school and keep their grades up. This alone provides enough incentive for many fathers to keep their daughters in school, a measure that will likely pay off substantially for that family’s and country’s future.

The WFP has also successfully implemented feeding programs in schools around the world, providing students with the nutrition they need to sustain learning. In Bangladesh, thanks to the WFP, schools provide students with a snack containing 80 per cent of their nutritional needs for the day at a cost of just 5 cents. Projects like these not only help the growing generation of students, but also build on the infrastructure capacity of the local food processing industry.

One of the most important ways to address the hunger issue in the future, according to Douglas, is to make these global issues a larger part of Western education. When an audience member asked Douglas if he thought there were any countries or organizations making any tangible progress on global food policies, Douglas boiled his answer down to a concise, “No.”

In order to address this goal, Douglas has in fact taken a sabbatical leave. He has been developing course material for a Hunger Studies Minor that’s being prepared in multiple universities, with the purpose of getting specialized people into the field.

Many people in North America see the images on TV of people suffering and wonder what they can do to help. For these people, Douglas wrapped up the night with a few suggestions, noting especially that there are people going hungry here in Canada every day. Douglas points to at-risk communities, which are present in many Aboriginal reserves, and suggests that students get their start in helping people by delivering food that’s past the cosmetic/aesthetic expiry date to food banks, taking pride in global stewardship, educating ourselves, and taking initiative.

Douglas ended his talk with a Haitian proverb that states, ‘An empty sack will not stand, so fill yourselves with rice and knowledge while you can, and take a stand.’

//Liam Park, writer
//Graphics by Jason Jeon

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