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Opinions | Thanksgiving is an opportunity to tackle global hunger

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/26/2020 William Lambers
a group of people playing instruments and performing on a stage: Volunteers pack boxes of food outside Second Harvest Food Bank on Nov. 19 in Irvine, Calif. The boxes will be distributed to families in need on Thanksgiving Day at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. (Ashley Landis/AP) Volunteers pack boxes of food outside Second Harvest Food Bank on Nov. 19 in Irvine, Calif. The boxes will be distributed to families in need on Thanksgiving Day at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. (Ashley Landis/AP)

America’s greatest Thanksgiving tradition — sharing our bounty — has literally saved millions of lives. That humanitarian spirit is needed more than ever today, with world hunger escalating and famine threatening multiple nations. If history is any indicator, America will respond to the cries of hunger from abroad this Thanksgiving.

Soon after the beginning of World War I in 1914, the small country of Belgium was devastated by the invading German army, which was battling France and Britain.

As often happens during war, the result was a food shortage, and the Belgian population was near starvation as Thanksgiving approached in the United States. Americans, however, would not let that happen, especially at Thanksgiving.

Appeals were printed in newspapers and donations were collected by states to send food to the hungry. The Washington Post reported that the president of the University of Illinois, Edmund James, started a huge fundraiser. Every county in Iowa was sending flour to Belgium. A blind and armless military veteran from Kentucky contributed money to that state’s collection.

Trainloads of food were sent from Western states to add to the shipment bound for Belgium, the first of many ships full of food that would eventually sail to Europe to fight the hunger caused by World War I.

A headline in the Indianapolis Star read: “Indiana people give generously to heartsick Belgium as Token of their Thanksgiving Peace and Plenty.” The Evening Ledger in Philadelphia published a Thanksgiving appeal asking every citizen to donate. They pleaded: “More than five million men, women and children, JUST LIKE OURS have been turned out of their homes or left desolate in stricken Belgium, and are without food or without shelter, or without sufficient clothing to protect them from the rigors of a winter already terrible in that country.”

Especially at Thanksgiving, when many Americans were counting their blessings and enjoying proverbial feasts, they understood the imperative of sharing their bounty and helping those in need overseas.

Ohio and Nebraska organized their own ships full of food to set sail at the start of the New Year. Nearly all of America was determined to keep the pipeline of food going to Belgium. This food assistance would continue throughout the war and the reconstruction.

Future president Herbert Hoover was the mastermind behind the relief effort. Hoover set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium that coordinated the food shipments and distributions to the country. This organization, backed by donations from the American people, brought lifesaving aid to starving Belgians. This food was especially crucial for children who were at risk of starvation and disease. Malnutrition can cause lasting physical and mental damage in children, if not death.

Hoover wrote “we established a system of canteens to supply a noonday meal to infants, children, expectant mothers, and the aged … with food relieving their deficiencies in famine, the rapid transformation of pale, sad, and wilted children into normal, chattering, active youngsters was one of the great compensations for our otherwise almost unendurable duties.”

The commission received hundreds of thousands of letters of heartfelt thanks from Belgians for the lifesaving food.

The aid from America during and after World War I went beyond Belgium and assisted many other nations in need. This humanitarianism continued into the next World War and the reconstruction afterward.

At Thanksgiving in 1947, when postwar Europe was reeling from hunger caused by drought, Americans fed “silent guests” at the holiday meal. Families set aside an extra plate at their table to symbolize the silent guest, who represented a hungry person in Europe. They made a donation to pay for feeding their silent guest, and this led to a CARE package of food being sent overseas to the hungry.

Feeding silent guests and other food aid fundraisers, including the Friendship Train, which collected food donations for Europe, showed Americans cared about the hungry.

This generosity also was a powerful example to Congress, encouraging it to pass legislation that fought hunger overseas. The famous Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe was preceded by an interim food aid bill that sustained Italy, Austria and France during the winter before reconstruction began.

America has continued to remain involved in feeding the most vulnerable populations around the globe in the decades since. But these efforts have not eradicated hunger, which is especially intense in a moment of worldwide economic devastation like the one we’re experiencing today because of the coronavirus.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) says famine is threatening Yemen, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Burkina Faso. The charity CARE and WFP also are bringing attention to a serious hunger crisis in Congo. A report from WFP said “25 countries are set to face devastating levels of hunger.”

Conflict in these nations and the spread of coronavirus has worsened hunger, leaving millions in danger of starvation. What’s terrible is the lack of funding for these emergencies, exacerbated as industrialized nations turn inward to fight the pandemic. In war-torn Yemen, food rations for some families have been reduced to every other month because of a shortage of resources. Without funding, lifesaving infant nutrition and school meals cannot be distributed.

Even as we battle crises at home, forgetting the starving abroad is both antithetical to American tradition and threatens horrific suffering. Throughout our history, Americans have responded to the plight of the hungry overseas, especially at Thanksgiving, when we are counting our blessings and celebrating with a large meal. Remembering that connection today could save lives and do good in an otherwise bleak moment.

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