Thanksgiving always evokes memories of the days when, as mothers of young children, we would bundle them up to deliver turkey baskets -- family to family -- to those in Washington, DC who couldn't afford a holiday dinner of their own.
That simple act connected our children to the original spirit of Thanksgiving -- where families stop not only to give thanks for plenty, but to share with strangers in need. Thanksgiving is one of the few days where soup kitchens and food pantries around the country burst at the seams -- not just with turkey and stuffing, but with volunteers eager to serve.
Americans, in fact, are the most generous people in the world when it comes to private philanthropy: 85 percent of American families give their time or money, with private giving averaging $300 billion a year.
This year Thanksgiving strikes at a critical hour for families everywhere who have been hit hard by the global financial meltdown.
In the United States, one in nine people rely each month on food stamps. Demand at food pantries and homeless shelters is at record levels. And 17 million American households have had difficulty putting food on the table during the last year -- a 14-year high.
Yet while we concentrate our efforts on addressing hunger at home, we must remember another face of hunger in our world -- one that's largely invisible until we glimpse it on our TVs from some distant country, when a typhoon, earthquake, flood, drought or conflict makes the evening news.
It's easy to forget the silent tsunami of hunger that rips an ever-greater swath through the places where there are no streets, where mothers wonder if their malnourished babies will survive and fathers despair that they cannot provide even a single meal for their desperate families. The compounding impact of the food, fuel and financial crises has pushed the numbers of those suffering chronic hunger past one billion -- one in six people on earth -- for the first time in history.
Those in the "Bottom Billion" subsist on a dollar a day or less. Each day, hunger and related ailments claim 25,000 lives, mostly children -- making hunger the world's No. 1 public health threat. Even when chronic hunger does not kill, it maims -- shattering health, longevity, and hope.
Malnutrition in children under age two causes irreversible damage to their minds and bodies. In countries like Ethiopia, Pakistan and Guatemala, one in two children is stunted. Not only is this an incalculable human loss, but it is a quantifiable financial loss to these nations. Studies show malnutrition causes tens of billions of dollars in losses to poor countries -- or as much as 11 percent of GDP.
As we've traveled the world, the two of us have shared stories and tears with other mothers -- far from Washington -- who have watched, helplessly, as their children slipped from their grasp into the maws of hunger. For them, Thanksgiving never comes.
Although the mind reels with the huge needs of the world, the solutions are surprisingly achievable. Many nations -- Ireland, China, Brazil, and a growing number of African countries -- have beat back the worst of hunger. Inexpensive nutritional interventions can dramatically improve the health -- and lives -- of women and children. For just 25 cents a day, we can feed a child at school, giving them a real shot at forging a better future.
And with $3.2 billion a year -- or $1.5 billion less than Americans spend on Halloween annually and a fraction of America's private giving -- we can feed the 66 million children worldwide who go to school hungry. This alone won't end hunger, but it would be a huge step forward.
If we are to solve hunger, it will take the political will and resources of governments. It's encouraging that the Obama administration and Congressional leadership recognize that a sustainable, comprehensive food security strategy is vital to ensure our planet's future peace and prosperity.
Yet every one of us, at all levels, can make a difference -- especially if we work together. The World Food Programme's first Internet citizens' campaign, www.wfp.org/1billion, is mobilizing the online community: if a billion Internet users donate a dollar a week, we could transform the lives of a billion hungry people across the world.
As we enter the season of colossal Wall Street bonuses and a frenzy of holiday spending, it is time for us to once more share the privilege of plenty. It is time to declare, once and for all, that not a single child should die from -- or be irrevocably stunted by -- hunger.
Not on our watch.
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