Of all the marks of difference that separate humans, none is so drastic as hunger. Not only does the physical sensation of being famished set a person off from those who are sated, but the well-fed are hard put even to imagine the desperation that goes with an empty stomach. Among the relatively well-off, hunger is like a vague rumor, having little more substance than the report of bad weather in a distant part of the globe.
Last week, at an emergency summit meeting in London, a UN official described a present global food shortage as a "silent tsunami," affecting millions of people in dozens of nations. As if out of nowhere, a world-historic crisis has arisen. In recent months, there have been food riots in such diverse places as Haiti, Cairo, Cameroon, Senegal, and Bangladesh. In Mexico, people speak of the "tortilla crisis," as the skyrocketing price of corn has made that staple too expensive. In the last two months, the price of rice has doubled in world markets. Store shelves across the southern hemisphere are empty, and foodstuffs in many places are being severely rationed. Economists define a general spike in commodity prices as the sharpest in 30 years. Without notice, the situation of hundreds of millions of chronically hungry people has become acute. The United Nations warns that 20 million children are at immediate risk of starvation.This dramatic reversal of hopes that world hunger was being overcome is a result of what a Salvadoran official called "a perfect storm" combination of factors: bad weather, decline in agricultural investment by governments, rising "protein" demands of large populations in India and China, fertilizer shortages, and, especially, the higher price of oil. Ironically, the transfer of countless acres of farmland from the growing of food to the production of bio-fuels is a particular culprit.
As the starving throng into streets around the world clamoring for something to feed their children, one hears the voice of humanity itself crying out, "What the hell is happening to us?"
Here in Massachusetts, where the shelves of food stores are well stocked, it may seem that hunger is a phenomenon of the distant poor, but that is wrong. Government studies suggested in 2007 that nearly half a million residents of this state do not have enough to eat. In a place where the income gap between the richest and the poorest is vast, the high cost of living puts the supply of basic nutritional needs beyond the reach of many. If a silent tsunami has struck the globe, a quiet Katrina rolls in on Massachusetts families every day. In many households, three meals have become two.
Compounding the profoundly physical problem of those who are deprived is the imprisoning moral problem of those who are well fed, for the culture of consumption, while it overfeeds appetite, starves the imagination. Here's where the divide between those who are hungry and those who eat enough is most manifest. Not only do the well fed fail to perceive the despair and fear that hunger breeds, until it explodes in riots of rage, but the well fed are equally incapable of seeing the causal link between their own privilege and the suffering of the dispossessed - although the substitution of bio-fuel corn production for the growing of edible wheat makes that link unusually apparent. Filling gas tanks of automobiles matters, in effect, more than filling bellies of children.
Given all of this, what is a person of good will to do?
Next Sunday, Boston offers an answer to that question. In its streets, tens of thousands of people will embark on the 40th Walk for Hunger - an annual event that, since it was founded by a young Catholic priest named Patrick Hughes in 1969, has raised tens of millions of dollars to feed the hungry. Last year, 43,000 participants raised funds for 42 million meals, administered by Project Bread. Yet more than raising money, the Walk feeds the imagination, as walkers bring to mind the normally forgotten people, here and far away, who have too little to eat. Overcoming this cruel divide requires, first, an urgent acknowledgment that it exists. Walk for Hunger next Sunday.