For any celebration or holiday, the first thing we usually think about is sharing food. There is no doubt about it. Having a meal with friends and family is an experience of recalling our past with each other, strengthening the bonds we have, and sharing our hopes for the future. It's no wonder that Jesus was so often eating and drinking with people of His time - and that He left us an ultimate meal to share with each other.
But for too many people around the block and around the world, hunger is always at the doorstep. Too many people live without food security. Food security means that food is available at all times, that all persons have means of access to it. Also, that it is nutritionally adequate in terms of quantity, quality and variety, and that it is acceptable within the given culture. Only when all these conditions are in place can a population be considered food secure.
To the extent that these conditions do not exist, or do not exist fully enough, there is a state of "food insecurity." The breadth of the problem of food insecurity is stunning - even in our own backyard. One recent Hunger Study in 2010 by the Food Bank of WNY highlights the need for food assistance in our region.
Since 2006, the number of people who are turning to emergency programs for assistance has increased by 82 percent at food pantries, 63 percent at soup kitchens, and 41 percent at shelters. Tens of thousands of people are served by our Western NY Catholic Charities food pantries alone.
According to the USDA, an estimated 14.3 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2013, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The prevalence of very low food security was at 5.6 percent, meaning that over 17 million people in our own country go hungry every night.
Caritas Internationalis, Catholic humanitarian aid network, reported that around the world, about 870 million people are undernourished. That's 12.5 percent of the world's population, or one in eight people. The vast majority of these - 852 million - live in developing countries, where nearly 15 percent of the population is believed to be undernourished.
What can you do? To begin with, you can participate in one of the corporal works of mercy of feeding the hungry. You can donate food, money and especially time to those who have less. Catholic Charities food pantries, the St. Vincent de Paul dining room, Feeding America, and Catholic Relief Services all offer us opportunities to make a difference.
As necessary as that is - and it is critical - we also have to take action to change the circumstances that keep people hungry. In his address for World Food Day, Pope Francis said this: "To defeat hunger, it is not enough to meet the needs of those who are unfortunate or to help through aid and donations those who live in situations of emergency. It is necessary, instead, to change the paradigm of aid and development policies."
Emergency food programs are short-term measures that only treat the symptom of a societal problem. Food security in contrast requires proactive steps to create a community food system that enhances peoples' access to nutritious and affordable food at all times.
It is our moral obligation to "change the paradigm" - to get involved in the issue of food insecurity in our neighborhoods, our nation and around the world. Join with Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services to "change the paradigm."
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services. He may be reached via email.