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This hungry planet

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2004

NEW YORK -- Like anyone who grew up in America, or any other affluent country, I have been fortunate never to have experienced or even seen starvation -- that is, until I recently traveled to Central America with the U.N. World Food Program.

What I saw was heartbreaking. Innocent children on the brink of death, farmers crippled by drought, and whole communities made helpless simply because of the lack of basic food and nutrients.

After seeing these things firsthand, it is very apparent that there is something terribly wrong with a world in which every five seconds a child dies of hunger or hunger-related illnesses. In the time it takes to read this sentence, another child will have died. The simple truth is that no one can remain indifferent when confronted by the sight of a starving child.

Seeing hunger's devastating effects has inspired me to bring this issue to the forefront as the leading humanitarian crisis we face today. WFP has launched a new Web site (WarOnHunger.Org) that is aimed at motivating and providing tools to high school and university students to enable them to get involved and make a difference in the fight against hunger. I urge everyone to visit it.

As students, the world provides us with no shortage of worthwhile causes to pursue. But in the case of hunger, it is frequently a matter of life and death, and failing to help means there will be real consequences. It is currently estimated that 25,000 people a day die of hunger and malnutrition.

In Guatemala, these statistics became real for me, as faces and names were all too vivid. The most tragic of all the places we visited was a therapeutic feeding center where a dozen or so acutely malnourished children were being treated. Some of these children had been chronically hungry for a good part of their lives, and they were both physically impaired and mentally retarded.

It is difficult to describe my feelings when I held a 9-year-old boy who was so emaciated he looked no more than 4 years old. The memory of his glassy stare and listless body is a constant reminder that hunger is a very real and deadly threat to hundreds of millions of people around the globe. There was another child with orange-colored hair -- the haunting tell-tale sign of serious malnutrition -- who looked on with a vacant stare. All of this exists within only a two-hour flight from the United States.

As Americans, we are blessed that we don't have to witness such scenes. But in Guatemala -- where the poor are gripped by an economic crisis sparked by a now-ended civil war, recurring droughts and a collapse of coffee prices -- the specter of hunger is very real for the most vulnerable, namely women and children.

In fact, it is estimated that more than 45 percent of all children under 5 are chronically malnourished. More surprising still is that Guatemala is far from being one of the world's serious humanitarian crises. The ravages of hunger are even more devastating in dozens of African countries, and in Afghanistan and North Korea.

Thankfully, hunger is a problem that can be solved. Through the highly nutritional food distributed by WFP, people are able to satisfy their most basic needs and develop into self-sufficient and productive communities. Although the United States is the largest donor to WFP, hunger remains an issue that has been all too easily overlooked.

As part of the interconnected global community, we are all morally obligated to take action against hunger. It is estimated that right now more than 800 million people around the world are in the grip of chronic hunger -- these are people who just happened to be born into a impoverished situation. Everyone deserves a chance at survival. That is why it is so important that we put hunger back on our moral radar screen. Because typically what we don't experience or see, we tend to easily disregard.

I hope a dialogue among students can create a new understanding of our duty toward those needlessly suffering from hunger around the world. We cannot continue to treat this issue as just another charity, as it is far too desperate and serious. Hunger is an issue that should concern us all.

Lauren Bush, a second-year student at Princeton University, last month was named honorary spokespersonforWarOnHunger.org, a Web site created to focus student attention on global hunger. She is the niece of the current president.