For people of faith, responding to hunger is about neither politics nor humanitarianism. Rather, feeding the hungry is primarily a response to the question posed by Jesus to all of his followers: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29). It is about the belief that the food we eat is both God’s gift in response to our need and God’s invitation for us to share this gift of life with others. Participating in efforts to feed and defend the hungry is accepting God’s invitation to love Christ in our suffering brothers and sisters.
Among the many ways of responding to this invitation is the Food Assistance Convention, which took effect on Jan. 1 and is the only legally binding international agreement related to reducing hunger and promoting food security. This agreement reaffirms and updates the global commitment made by major donor countries since 1967, in a series of Food Aid Conventions, to provide food to those in need throughout the world. This new convention has the potential to become a significantly more important international instrument for assisting those with insecure access to food.
The primary focus of previous Food Aid Conventions was providing food aid—typically food grown in and shipped by donor countries. Under the new convention, the United States, the European Union and other donor countries make a commitment to additional types of food assistance in order to respond most appropriately to those in need. In addition to the food that is required to feed the hungry directly, cash and food vouchers are also explicitly recognized as valid forms of assistance. Because the convention stipulates that actual need should determine what food assistance will be provided, it underscores the importance of donor support for accurately determining the food needs of the hungry in each context as well as the most appropriate response to best meet those needs.
Therefore, to help ensure that the types and levels of food assistance required will be available to meet as much need as possible, every member is required at the beginning of each year to make a legally binding resource commitment of food and/or money for the provision of food assistance. Under previous conventions, commitments were fixed for many years. Now, however, the types and levels of assistance provided by members can change annually to reflect changing food needs and national budgets. The annual food and dollar commitments of the United States will be determined by what the president requests in his budget and what Congress authorizes and funds each fiscal year.
Consequently, agricultural commodity and other commercial interests will lobby for types of assistance and levels of funding that are in their financial interest, like the sale of food to the U.S. government for food aid. Humanitarian and development organizations will lobby for certain types and levels of food assistance depending upon whether their programs focus on development or responding to emergencies. And individual citizens, especially people of faith, will have the opportunity to remain silent or to express their opinions about whether our country should respond to the needs of the hungry living beyond our borders—and, if so, how generously.
The Food Assistance Convention will become a more important instrument for addressing global hunger than the previous Food Aid Conventions if the consistent focus of the signatory donors is on providing the types and amounts of food assistance that meet the needs of the hungry. This will require that future donor commitments are less suceptible to the biases and whims of donors, which can reflect their own perceived self-interest. The chances of this happening will be far greater if people of faith are committed to seeking meaningful food commitments from their governments, because they, as people of faith, believe that feeding the hungry is not about politics, but is about feeding Christ in our world today, the Christ who feeds us as well.
Receiving and Sharing the Gift
As people of faith, we are invited to consider what Jesus teaches his followers about his Father, food, hunger and the kingdom. This entails a prayerful encounter, one that is enriched by an Ignatian spirit of contemplation in action, with our incarnate God, who consistently attaches special importance to food and hunger. This is particularly evident in the Our Father, the multiplication of the loaves and fish, the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper and in Matthew’s account of the Last Judgment.
Jesus provides his followers with a glimpse of his intimacy with the Father in the Our Father. This prayer acknowledges the Father’s gift of food that enables him to carry out his earthly work in proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Jesus also reveals to his followers that they have the same Father. He teaches them to petition the Father for daily bread that satisfies their daily hunger, makes possible their healthy growth and establishes a bond with all members of God’s family. Included in this prayer is an acknowledgment of the physical need for food to sustain life as well as an awareness of our basic human dependency upon a heavenly Father who provides the sustenance that nourishes life. When Jesus invites his followers to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” he is reminding them that the purpose of the Father’s gift of food is to provide the nourishment required to build the kingdom on earth.
Jesus also focuses on the physical needs of a hungry humanity in his compassionate multiplication of loaves and fish. In this encounter with Jesus’ divinity, we witness Jesus’ response to the concrete, physical needs of people as a clear manifestation of the Father’s love. We witness the divine source of food for the hungry. And we learn that sharing God’s gift involves some human action. Before the miracle, people were involved in the production of loaves and in catching the fish placed in the baskets at the feet of Jesus. People were involved in the market system that made it possible for some loaves and fish to be available. After the miracle, people collected the leftover loaves and fish and placed them in baskets at the feet of Jesus. Each of these actions reminded everyone present that God’s gift of the food they ate was both fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.
A Eucharistic Vision
God’s miraculous gift of food in response to our need culminates in the gift of the Eucharist and the washing of the feet. In receiving the Eucharist, we no longer simply receive God’s gift of food to nourish our human bodies, but we also receive the presence of God who chooses to embody himself in this gift of food. By virtue of this gift, Christ resides within our fellow humans, and we become even more closely linked to all members of our family whom we acknowledge and affirm in the Our Father. Thus it is fitting that Jesus teaches us to wash the feet of others since his real presence is found within them. This washing of feet, this imitation of Christ, involves finding ways to feed our hungry neighbor within whom Christ’s passion continues. Jesus points to the profound importance of the washing of feet when he explains that the Son of Man sitting on his throne of glory will welcome into the kingdom those who recognized him and fed him in their hungry neighbor, the very least of his brothers and sisters (Mt 25:31-46).
Reflecting on food as God’s gift and the invitation to share God’s goodness can bear fruit in many possible ways. It can deepen our reverence for the food we eat as being God’s gift. It can deepen our understanding that receiving the gift of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist always invites a human response—our “washing of feet” whenever we help feed anyone within whom Christ resides. It can identify ways to prevent the hardening of our hearts toward those who hunger or those who assist them. It can deepen our understanding that Christ resides in the hungry in our local community and in faraway places. And it can energize our commitment as individuals, as church and as a nation to respond generously to the needs of the hungry with the gifts of food and food assistance that are essential to building God’s kingdom.