How a simple meal helped the world's top marathoner

I heard about a new TV show in the United States called "The Biggest Loser" in which overweight contestants vie to shed pounds and win $250,000. I have to confess that while I understand the concept, I was a little baffled.

As a long-distance marathon runner, I know how essential it is for people to watch their waistlines and diets. Growing numbers of people are overweight - more than 1 billion worldwide at last count - spurring governments, businesses, and all kinds of support groups into action. It's estimated that in the US alone, the weight-loss industry - which produces everything from pills to foods to diet centers - generated close to $50 billion in sales last year.

You may not hear much about it, but in Africa we also have overweight people. For every fat one, however, we have hundreds more whose bellies are empty. The idea that people would tune in to watch half a dozen people trying to lose weight made me think: Why can't we generate the same amount of interest in the estimated 25,000 people who lose their lives every day because they couldn't get enough to eat?

While we look the other way, the number of hungry people continues to grow, from 790 million in the mid-1990s to 852 million last year - this despite frequent and loud commitments by world leaders to cut in half the number of hungry people by 2015.

Why do I care, you ask? I know what real hunger pangs feel like. As a child, often the only meal I got was the bowl of porridge served at my school thanks to the UN World Food Program (WFP). I was also one of the fortunate ones. Because of those school lunches, I was able to grow up strong and healthy. Millions of my countrymen and women are not so fortunate.

As human beings, every time we see a hungry person, we are gripped by shame and an urgent desire to help. Yet for reasons I don't fully understand, hunger seems to exist in a ghetto - present but unseen.

We only have to look at hunger crises in countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger, and Malawi to understand the urgency of the need. Globally, it's estimated there are 300 million children who run the highest risk of seeing their lives either cut short, or ruined because malnutrition robbed them of normal physical and mental development.

I used to be one of the hungry. Had a food program not been available to me and my schoolmates, I probably wouldn't be writing this, much less could I have set the world record at the 2003 Berlin Marathon or had the chance to once again participate in this year's New York City Marathon.

The Big Apple is a long way from the dusty Kenyan town of Baringo where I grew up and where drought, disease, and hunger were a daily reality. For most kids in Baringo, life was an uphill struggle, where the lack of food meant you couldn't get a head start in life. Children usually spent their early years helping their families earn a living. At best, only one child in the family went to school, but even then, hunger always hovered nearby.

When I was 8, however, all that changed. The WFP began distributing food at the schools in the area, and, all of a sudden, a heavy burden was lifted. My friends and I no longer worried about being hungry in class. We ate a simple meal each day and could concentrate on our lessons.

Those kids who had dropped out of school came back; others, who had never been to school, were sent by their parents. Today, 27 years later, I often ask myself the question: Without the benefit of school feeding, would I have become a literate, healthy, successful long-distance runner?

Since my days as a beneficiary, I have learned that school feeding can dispel hunger, cut malnutrition, double school attendance, and boost educational performance. It also compensates poor parents for the loss of their children's labor while they are attending classes.

What makes school feeding so valuable is that it frees individuals to develop their innate potential while building self-reliance. This can be done for millions of other children around the world.

The highly successful postwar school feeding programs in Europe, the US, Japan, and other countries, helped transform war-torn nations into strong societies and economies in just one generation. The same can be done for developing countries worldwide.

Just 10 cents out of every dollar the US spends on diet products would help prevent the death of almost 10 million people every year. But we don't have to think in terms of millions of dollars. The bottom line is that it only takes 19 cents a day to feed a hungry child in school in Kenya, Bangladesh, or Honduras.

The choice before us then, is not between fighting hunger or obesity - both are important and doable. It's within our power to win while fighting on both fronts.

This Thanksgiving, Americans can be proud of the enormous good that they do through their charitable donations and the aid their government provides in Africa and across the globe. As you pause to give thanks at the dinner table, please spare a thought for those who still need your help. Then, on Friday, when you cannot bear the idea of more desserts, start saving what you would have spent on them in a week or a month and help feed a child.

Paul Tergat is the world's fastest marathon runner. He is a former recipient of WFP school lunches, and now an ambassador for the program.

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