'Food Security' Means More Than Calories

World Food Day (Oct. 16) is the annual celebration of the day in 1945 when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was created. People in 150 nations will raise money, plant gardens, collect food, dig wells, or join a global teleconference to raise awareness about hunger. Tens of millions of people will take part in the US alone.

Agricultural advances have enabled a doubling of global food supplies in the last 40 years, far outpacing population growth. There is, theoretically, more than enough to feed everyone.

Yet almost 800 million people - one of every seven - still suffer from hunger and malnutrition. And if there's not enough to feed all 6 billion people on Earth today, what about the 9 billion who will be here three decades from now? To meet global needs in 2030, food production will have to rise by 75 percent - without depleting scarce resources.

But supply is only one part of the equation. That's why agricultural experts and humanitarian aid groups talk more and more about "food security," which means food access and use as well as availability.

Can people grow or buy the food they need, not just today but tomorrow?

If food is available, does everyone have physical and economic access to it?

Is good nutrition practiced?

Thanks to the hard work of farmers and aid workers, and the generosity of the American people (more than half contribute to hunger relief programs), it's more likely than ever that the answer to these questions is yes. We have figured out the recipe for food security, but we keep running out of a key ingredient: the political will needed to make it a high priority.

A number of events this fall will increase awareness of hunger and boost resolve to do something about it:

*The Bread for the World Institute releases for World Food Day its seventh annual report on "the state of world hunger." This year's report, "What Governments Can Do," responds to skepticism about government's role in reducing hunger and poverty.

*National Food Bank Week (Oct. 13-19) spotlights the hundreds of Second Harvest food banks nationwide. Working through 40,000 shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries, they provide 26 million Americans with surplus food and household products.

*October is National UNICEF Month, during which children in the US hold educational events and raise money for children elsewhere. It wraps up on Halloween, when good-hearted ghosts trick-or-treat for UNICEF, working for coins as well as candy.

*On Nov. 1, Share Our Strength kicks off its "Charge Against Hunger" campaign, in which restaurant patrons support antihunger efforts by paying the check with an American Express card.

*On Nov. 21, a week before Thanksgiving in the US, hundreds of thousands of people will join Oxfam America's 23rd annual "Fast for a World Harvest," skipping a meal or more and donating the money they would have spent on food. Others will take part in "Food Fast," a 24-hour fast and education program organized by Catholic Relief Services.

*Throughout the fall, Church World Service supporters nationwide will raise money for anti-hunger programs by holding 1,500 "CROP Walks." Almost 300,000 people walked last year.

But the most important event of all will be the World Food Summit, held Nov. 13-17 in Rome. Over the past year, governments have been working with the FAO, as well as businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), on a Plan of Action to be ratified in Rome. The plan will guide national and global food policies into the next century.

Most summit participants agree on the problems: a chronic failure to end hunger and a looming food-supply crisis. But they disagree on solutions.

The United States and a few other nations see economic reform as the key to food security, and they want to help poor nations adopt the "free market" policies they say will expand trade.

That's not enough, say NGOs and others: Without food aid, debt relief, and social and economic development to level the playing field, "free market" policies might push poor nations to grow more cash crops for export, which could decrease the food available to their most vulnerable citizens.

At a similar conference held in Rome in 1974, governments pledged to end hunger in 10 years. Though there have been gains - today's 5.8 billion people each have 15 percent more food than 4 billion people had 20 years ago - the promise now rings hollow.

As we gather for our feasts this fall, let us pray for those who do not have a place at the table - and pledge that, this time, we will do all we can to help them get there.

*Julia V. Taft is president and CEO of InterAction, a US coalition of more than 150 international relief, development, and refugee-assistance agencies.

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