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February 10, 2002

Hunger: A problem for everyone

-Bridget Bradburn
Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Carolina Corner

Bridget Sitting in GazeboMy name was Lourdes. I lived in a village in Brazil with my five children. My husband left me when I was pregnant with my last child, so I took a job in a textile factory. The hours were long, but I made just enough money to feed my babies.This was the role I played in a hunger dinner. I was visiting my sister in Williamstown, Mass., where she volunteers for the Institute for International Cooperation and Development. Caitlyn and 30 other volunteers are training for a year of service in developing countries in Africa and South America. Caitlyn will be in Mozambique, training a teacher in an agricultural school and working on a farm with students.

IICD hosted a family and friends weekend last month to tell us about their work. The dinner was a lesson in world poverty and politics.There were about 35 visitors. A handful of them played the roles of upper-class citizens -- an artist in Austria; a doctor in India who was married to a businessman; a college student.They represented the 15 percent of the world's population with a per-capita income of $9,400 or more. They consume 70 percent of the world's grain, we were told.The high-income group sat at a table with cloth tablecloths and candles. They were served bountiful meals of chicken, potatoes and vegetables by waiters. They threw away the food they didn't like.

Beside them, about a dozen people, including myself, sat at a long table. We represented middle-class citizens -- 30 percent of the world's population -- who earn between $765 and $9,400 a year. There were workers who left their families to find jobs in the city as domestic servants or sweatshop laborers. There were families living in overcrowded housing with shoddy plumbing. There was a migrant farm worker living in a mobile home in the U.S. South.For dinner, we were served rice and beans and water. We looked at the full plates of those in the upper class with longing.

At the same time, we were grateful for what we had.

We looked beside us to the people sitting on the floor. There were about 25 of them, crowded into a small space, sitting shoulder to shoulder. They represented the world's largest and poorest population. They were the 55 percent who earn less than $765 a year -- about $2 a day. Most of them were from countries such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Haiti or Cambodia. Some were tenant farmers who owe the landowner 75 percent of the harvest. Others were laborers at large plantations. They are malnourished and homeless. The group sitting on the floor was told to line up to receive a small bowl of rice. The men were served first, and there was barely enough. The group drank from a basin of water.

It didn't take long for the poor to resent the rich. The rich were still feasting long after the poor had finished their small portions of rice. And it didn't take long for the rich to rationalize their unwillingness to help. They were too busy, they said. Or they didn't have anything to give right now. They even put up a screen to block the hungry faces of the poor.

But no matter where we sat, we saw the scope of the problem. Every day, 24,000 people die of hunger -- three-fourths of those are younger than 5 years old.

Caitlyn and her peers are working to solve that. But they might never get to the root of the problem. The world produces enough food to feed us all. Hunger exists because of the worldwide inequalities in education, resources and power.

That's a problem we all need to solve.

Bridget Bradburn covered education for the Herald-Journal.