Facing the Facts on World Food Day: Scarcity Isn't the Problem

It's a good thing you're reading this piece electronically, because if you had a hard copy chances are it'd now be accessorized by a coffee ring and crumbs from your breakfast. I wouldn't mind, though. You might take a moment to feel extra appreciative of that spoonful of cereal as today is World Food Day.

Over the years, as I've traveled the globe with Action Against Hunger, many faces and stories have stuck with me -- some haunt me -- but one teenage boy named George I met three years ago in Uganda has come to serve as my guiding star. By the time I met George, Uganda was emerging from the depravity of a long civil war like none other in which young children were abducted and forced to kill or be killed. We talked about the struggles he and his family faced -- the loss of friends and family to the war and the hunger and thirst that stalked his part of northern Uganda for years afterwards. He expressed a deep appreciation for the assistance he and his community had received, which had saved their lives and helped them regain stability and dignity. This kid had a wisdom and warmth that seemed a small miracle -- and a symbol of a hopeful future. In passing a colleague said to the teen, "Hey, maybe you can work with us one day!" He paused, thought a moment, and replied, "Thank you, but I really hope you won't need to be here by the time I'm grown up." I so want to make him right. It's his face I see when I think about what's possible.

What George somehow knew was that even though the aid he was getting was needed at the time, he and his generation had to eradicate hunger for good. Not by filling and re-filling a void, but through permanent, sustainable solutions. Ending hunger, George knew, is the critical first step toward education and prosperity. So, what do we need to do to make it so? First and foremost, we need to debunk the major myth that persists -- that hunger is all about food scarcity. It isn't. The Institute for Food Policy and Development once cited this as its number one myth about hunger. We live in a world with abundance, where there's actually enough food to feed every person twice over. The problem is one of access, of poverty.

It's also one of nutrition. Our focus shouldn't be so single-mindedly about making more food, but rather getting better food to those who need it -- especially children. Earlier this year at the Copenhagen Consensus, top economists from around the world concluded that the single most effective investment to combat the world's greatest challenges is micronutrient interventions for children, in the interest of fighting hunger and improving education. For example, something as simple and inexpensive as fortifying foods with Vitamin A and Zinc -- nutrients that were in your morning breakfast cereal -- has been proven to significantly increase immunity and decrease rates of infection, which are key to ensuring child growth and development.

We're at a critical turning point in our efforts to give the world's hungry children a second chance. For the first time in measured history, child deaths have fallen below seven million per year across the globe. Data released just last month by UNICEF and the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation show that the number of children under the age of five dying globally has decreased, from nearly 12 million in 1990 to an estimated 6.9 million last year.

My colleagues in the NGO community and I are of course thrilled that the trend line of hunger continues to decline. The tragedy is that more than a third of those 6.9 million child deaths were caused by undernutrition. Acute malnutrition kills, and when it doesn't, it can cause permanent cognitive and physical damage. It really, truly, unequivocally doesn't have to be. Acute malnutrition is predictable and preventable, and totally treatable. It's also completely affordable; the micronutrient interventions I referenced above cost next to nothing per meal. For those kids already suffering from acute malnutrition, just $45 can provide a full treatment regimen. Ready-to-use therapeutic foods, or "RUTFs" in NGO-speak, are cheap, portable, and highly effective.

It makes sense that I'm thinking of George today, but the truth is that I think of him often. He's right, you know. NGOs like mine shouldn't have to work in Uganda, or anywhere else. It may sound crazy, but every single day I am diligently trying to work myself out of a job. It can happen in our lifetime. It should. It must.