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A Continued Intention

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished my 30 days of hunger solidarity. Near the end of the 30 days I shared here that although I would no longer be restricting my diet to a dollar of food per day, I had every intention of continuing to work towards supporting the New Life Center in Malawi and raising awareness of hunger issues in the world. Over the last two months I have raised $1408 for the New Life Center and hope to raise the remaining $1592 of my $3000 goal within the next three weeks. 

During the 30 Days I spent eating only a $1 of food per day, I learned this:

- Without being intentional about the food I eat, it is very easy to use food primarily as a source of pleasure, to eat more than I need, to eat food that is taxing on my body and on the environment, and to dispose of uneaten food unnecessarily.

- Hunger increases stress, distracts me from important tasks, causes fatigue, and makes it very difficult to raise myself above challenging contexts.

- My experience of hunger, though uncomfortable, is relatively minor compared to the experience of those who are not certain when their next meal will come, or if it will at all.

- A significant factor in my food choices is how it will affect my body image. This has, in the past, lead me to consume unnecessary amounts of protein in the form of dairy, meat, and poultry.

- Finding food that has a low impact on the environment is very difficult when I do not prepare it myself. The food that is readily available is high in sugar, high in preservatives, high in packaging, and high in cost.

- Eating a diet primarily of rice and a variety of pulses leaves me feeling much healthier than eating excessive meat, sugar, and processed foods.

- $1 is not enough to live on sustainably, but I could imagine living comfortably on $2 a day.

- Food is beautiful when you know its value, and can feel good about its production, and when it is prepared with gratitude.

- My privilege is not an excuse to hoard. It is a responsibility to share.

Beginning tomorrow I will begin a new diet for the next three weeks. For $2 a day, I believe I will be able to eat enough to sustain an active lifestyle healthily. I recognize that these numbers are somewhat arbitrary, but I believe that the reduction and/or alteration of our consumption is a step in the right direction toward a more sustainable world in which those who are presently starving would have a better chance at life. In these next three weeks I hope to continue to raise awareness of hunger issues and to raise support for the New Life Center in Malawi through Groundwork Opportunities. Every dollar donated through Groundwork Opportunities goes directly to supporting Malawians through the New Life Center.

Thank you,

Colin

 

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Day 30 – Hunger as a Responsibility

I left Malawi in December of 2013, only a few weeks after arriving. My time there passed by in a blur and I left with a vague recollection of latent images I would later process and share. I left wondering if it was enough to be a witness to the things I had seen, and the stories I had heard, or if, having witnessed these things, I was immediately made responsible to them. My question of responsibility is one I hope to be continually asking throughout my life, and even if I never come to a definitive answer I hope that I will always have the courage to respond with willingness and humility.

For the last thirty days I have been eating much less, both in volume and variety, with the intention of raising awareness of the story of hunger that most Malawians face every day. I’m doing this because I want to experience it myself, to whatever limited extent I can, and because I want others to take pause and consider their own relationship with hunger. I don’t have an answer to solve world hunger. But I do know that I am capable of helping at least some of those who face hunger in a severe way every day.

The following is a letter that I wrote and sent out last week. If there are others who might be interested in supporting the New Life Center in Malawi, please follow the link.

Dear Friends,

Some of you are aware that I set an intention 27 days ago to spend 30 days in Hunger Solidarity with Malawians in the hope of raising awareness for an organization I worked with in Malawi called The New Life Center. I’ve been eating only a dollar’s worth of food each day and am nearing the end of my 30 days. I’ve lost about ten pounds, but I seem to be leveling out. My diet has consisted largely of lentils and rice, with small portions of a few other things to add some variety. It hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be but, as I’ve mentioned several times in my blog www.foodforaday.wordpress.com, I am doing this with the awareness that I will have food the next day, and that I’m doing this by choice, and that my intention has an expiry date. These are luxuries that most Malawians do not have. For them, hunger is a daily reality and it represents a constant unknown.

The New Life Center is working to address hunger issues in Malawi by providing direct access to food for those who need it most, and training to farmers who are otherwise limited in their ability to produce enough maize each year to feed their families. The center’s fundraising goal is $22,000, of which they have raised $8308. My personal goal is to raise $3000 for the New Life Center, of which I have raised $808, although $258 of that was out of my own pocket as a representation of the average amount that Canadians spend each month on groceries. I’ve waived this luxury for 30 days, but as I near the end of it I know that I am developing new intentions, which are now related to the variety and the amount of food I will choose to eat in the future.

I’m writing to ask if you’ll support this project with me. I’ve spent time with the individuals responsible for this organization in Malawi and I believe deeply in them. Their stories are available through the organization responsible for the facilitation of their fundraising efforts, an organization based out of San Francisco called Groundwork Opportunities. It was through Groundwork Opportunities that I traveled to Malawi in November and December of 2013. I’ve been very impressed with the organization and am happy to share that they do not hold any percentage of your donation for their own operating expenses. Instead, at the time of donating they provide you with the option of donating an additional small amount to Groundwork Opportunities. Every dollar you donate to The New Life Center in Malawi is received by the New Life Center.

So, here are some suggestions:

1.The average Canadian spends $8 per day on groceries. This doesn’t include meals out. Try to spend an entire day eating only $1 of food. Or even a single meal. Donate the remainder of your allotted $8 to the New Life Center. It seems like a small amount, but if enough people were willing to do this, it would make a considerable difference.

2. Host a dinner with your friends and your family. Allow $1 for each person in attendance and see what kind of meal you can come up with. Ten people would give you $10. Then, put together the money that you might have spent if you had gone out for dinner to a restaurant and donate it collectively to The New Life Center. Ten people could very easily come up with $200, which would be a huge help.

3. In solidarity with my 30 days, donate $30. One dollar for every day.

4. In recognition of the imbalance of wealth between our countries, donate the amount that you would spend on groceries during a normal month. The average for Canadians is $240. Maybe you spend more, or maybe less.

The issues around hunger are complex and overwhelming, and I don’t want to ignore these complexities or discount them. But nor do I want to be paralyzed by them. Even if my response is as simple as offering a small amount of money to an organization I believe in, I am doing more than nothing.

For more information on The New Life Center, or to make a donation, visit www.groundworkopportunities.org.

To hear more about my personal experience of my time in Malawi and my current experiment in hunger solidarity read my blog at www.foodforaday.wordpress.com or watch this brief video: https://vimeo.com/102839666

Thank you for your time and your support.

Sincerely

Colin Vandenberg

 “I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one.”

- Mother Theresa

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Day 24 – Decision Fatigue

A few months ago my friend shared an article with me from The New York Times about Decision Fatigue. Essentially, as a person goes through his or her day, making decisions as they go along, their ability to make sound decisions eventually begins to diminish. This isn’t because of a lack of character. The brain just gets tired, like any muscle would. At one point, the article cites the grocery store checkout aisle, where stressed out individuals stand in line waiting to pay for the dozens of decisions they just made. Available to them in that moment of exhaustion is a special arrangement of chocolate bars and candy, just when their sense of judgement is at its weakest. The brain is ready to resign to cravings and escape. It wants relief. It wants to be reckless after so much careful scrutiny.

I’ve had a stressful few days, wrestling with challenging decisions, and trying to discern the next step in my life. Stress and hunger make poor companions and I’ll admit that I was tempted to abandon my Dollar a Day Diet in order to cope with the accumulative stress. Knowing that hunger – a temporary and merely physical affliction – was contributing to my levels of stress, did nothing to alleviate that stress. The decisions felt more difficult. The stress felt more unbearable. I did not abandon my intention but it did give me something to think about.

We all experience stress at various points in our lives, and I wouldn’t claim that one situation is more stressful than another. There are many factors, and there are many different methods of coping available to many different people. A person in my city earning $300,000 every year might experience more daily stress than a person in Malawi earning only $300 every year. They might experience stress for different reasons, but it’s a hard thing to quantify.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that stress is a lot harder to deal with when your stomach is empty and you don’t know if you’ll have enough to eat for the rest of the day. Maybe Malawians are used to these physical sensations and it has less of an impact on their feelings of stress, but maybe not. I know that I am not used to it. I get a little grumpy when I’m hungry. Sometimes I feel stressed out and then I realize after eating that I wasn’t actually that stressed out but just hungry. 

I don’t mean to diminish the stress that is experienced in the midst of affluence. Certainly there’s a lot of stress buzzing around between all of our heads. I don’t know that it gives much perspective to say that there are some who are stressed by much more morbid decisions, like whether or not they are able to feed all of their children. This doesn’t make me feel any less stressed out about my own life, but it does remind me that affluence or poverty do not determine peace of mind. Peace does not come from having more than I need. But in knowing that I have enough I can experience peace. And in sharing with others I can have peace.

I would ask this of you: if you are able, spend a day eating only a dollar of food. And, if you are able, take the money you would have spent on a meal out, and give it to an organization addressing hunger issues. Donations to The New Life Center, where I spent time in Malawi, can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians to experience the life of abundance we all deserve.

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Day 22 – Hunger as an Annoyance

Day 22

After running around all day on an empty stomach, feeling irritable and tired, I’m finally at home, well fed and at peace. It’s amazing how a bowl of rice and chickpeas can so easily calm my mood. Food is a beautiful thing.

It’s been 22 days out of the 30 that I will spend in hunger solidarity with Malawians. So far, I have consumed a total of $20.86 worth of food. The actual feelings of hunger have been easier to deal with than I thought they would be. I’ve intentionally saved my biggest meal for the end of the day so I have rarely gone to bed hungry. I prefer to feel it during the day when I know that I will eat eventually. What has been more challenging is remaining constantly conscious of every gram of food that I eat, and saying no to any impulse to treat myself with a piece of chocolate, a beer, or a meal out.

The woman at the food stand near where I live, tried to convince me that the actual cost of her fries were probably only a dollar an order. It would cost me $4 to buy them but she insisted that I could eat them with a clear conscious. I was tempted, but that would have been my budget for the entire day and so I declined. I was glad at least for the conversation.

I know that I feel irritable when I’m hungry and that the fewer comforts I have, the greater my irritability becomes. I’ve given up my usual diet, but the rest of my life goes on as it would otherwise. I have clean, running water, electricity, a comfortable home, and reliable transportation. Most Malawians do not have these things.

I have just over one week left of my intention to live on a dollar of food per day. I’m raising money for an organization that I worked with in Malawi called The New Life Center. Donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities. Every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians through The New Life Center.

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Day 16 – A Conversation

I recently asked a few questions of my friend Samuel in Malawi. He was generous enough to answer in depth and I wanted to share those responses with you. I’m on my sixteenth day of hunger solidarity, consuming only a dollar worth of food per day to raise support for The New Life Center in Malawi. Donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities.

Thanks for reading.

  1. We have all experienced hunger. It was one of the first things we cried about when we were still infants. What is different about the hunger that is felt by the men and women of your village from the hunger felt by those living in more affluent contexts?

Deepening poverty is inextricably linked with the rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity/hunger for many western/affluent societies, and children are particularly affected by these conditions. Indeed the food insecurity present in affluent societies may lead to delinquent behaviour among youth. Among adults, it often results in homelessness and criminal activities. In contrast, hunger within my community results in one ultimate consequence: death. This may sound far too extreme, but from my personal experience it is simply a matter of fact. I see this especially among children between 0-5 years. I also know that many adults die unreported because of starvation. Hunger is the single main cause of death in our communities.

  1. What are the main contributing factors to Malawi’s hunger issues?

It is a chicken and egg scenario when it comes to analysing the causes of hunger and poverty in Malawi. It is often believed that poverty causes hunger because poor people have no capacity (capital) to grow their own food and thus they remain perpetually hungry. On the other hand, hungry people cannot develop innovative ways to combat the root causes of hunger. Hunger diminishes peoples’ creative power and keeps them in the state of despair. From my community’s perspective in Malawi, the main causes of hunger are rooted in the chronic phenomenon of poverty. Even when all other factors of production are available, the chronic status prevents people from taking advantage of opportunities and hence they remain hungry most of the time. To grow enough food, a family requires basic farm inputs, of say US$150 per year per person for a start, this amount is far beyond the reach of millions of Malawians in rural communities and as a result they remain in the state of food insecurity.

  1. How does hunger affect Malawians?

It results in chronic sicknesses, permanent physical and mental disability and death. Combined, these things effectively trap people in the vicious cycle of poverty.

The economy of Malawi is highly dependent on agriculture. Maize, the staple food, is grown by 97% of households on about 1.6 million hectares of land with more than half of farming families living below subsistence levels. Many households, particularly women headed households, run out of food during the period from November to March, known as the ‘hungry season’ and must rely on other coping strategies to survive such as decreasing consumption, selling assets, cutting expenditure, seeking work, or borrowing. Only one in five farmers produce enough food to sell at the market. When the planting season starts again around October, many households cannot afford to buy seed and fertilizer. The extent of the problem of hunger in Malawi is reflected in its nutrition indicators. According to the National Nutrition Policy and Strategic Plan (2007-2012), 22% of children less than five years of age are underweight, 5% suffer acute sever malnutrition. Stunting prevalence rates in rural areas (48%) are significantly higher than in urban areas (38%).

 

  1. Who is most affected by hunger in Malawi?

Hunger mainly affects the poor households in the rural areas. More vulnerable groups include orphans, and the ultra poor. Hunger severely affects women, children and the elderly. It does affect nearly 80% of the Malawi’s population that lives in the rural areas.

  1. What would it take to end systemic hunger in Malawi?

The only and best way is to build the capacity and scale of community based and community led interventions, by building their resilience.

  • Growing more than once per year. Promote irrigation than relying on rains
  • Promote diversity in food crops that are grown. Reliance is mainly is on maize
  • Grow drought resistant cops
  • Promote awareness on crops and food processing and utilization
  • Improved social support to strengthen households ability to be resilient
  • Address crosscutting issues including HIV/AIDS, gender and governance

To hear Samuel’s personal story and why he cares so much about combating poverty in Malawi, visit this page.

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Day 14 – A simple response to a complicated problem

As I reach the end of my second week I remain cognizant of my unavoidably privileged position. I’ve been eating less than a dollar’s worth of food for the last fourteen days and still I haven’t come close to the experience of hunger that the majority of people in this world experience every day. I know I will eat again today, I know I will eat tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next. In 16 days I could go back to eating whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m not starving.

On one hand, I think, maybe a dollar a day isn’t so bad. But then I note that my weight has dropped a few pounds. My energy has been low. I’m less able to focus. And I imagine what it would be like to survive like this if I had to spend ten hours in the fields each day, if I had a family depending on me, or if I was sick. A dollar a day might be survivable for a time, but is it sustainable? The truth is, I don’t want to return to eating in excess. I don’t want to return to eating more than my fair share of what this earth can provide for our current population and the generations to come. I want to eat what makes sense on a global scale, not what I’m privy to merely because I live where I live and was born to the family I was born to. I don’t know what this will look like, but I want to imagine what it might look like.

I will continue now as I am, eating less than I’m accustomed to, with the intention of standing in solidarity with the majority world poor, but I will not know what it truly means to be hungry. Even if I continued living like this month after month I would still not truly know how hunger, for many, is not experienced as a mere nuisance, but as a deepening fear, and a gnawing pain.

There are many reasons to understand why some are given their choice of food in excess and why others are struggling just to survive. But none of these reasons offer an excuse. None of them justify such a gross imbalance. Hunger is not some mysterious disease that we are unable to cure. It is not an enigma waiting to be solved. The problems around hunger on a global scale are interminably complicated, but when we have the power to offer a meal to someone who would otherwise starve, or, better yet, the power to enable that person to provide themselves with continual meals, we possess a simple solution to a simple problem and we have little excuse not to act.

As I continue this experiment in hunger solidarity, intending to play my small part in improving the lives of other by living more responsibly with the excesses of wealth available to me, my hope is that others will also set their own similar intentions. To become involved with what I’m doing, send me a message at colin@colinvandenberg.com, or donate directly to The New Life Center in Malawi through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar goes directly to successfully improving the lives of Malawians who struggle with hunger daily.

Thanks for reading,

Colin