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Opinion: To fight global hunger, consider inviting the ‘silent guest’ to Thanksgiving

Setting an extra place setting is a small thing that families can do to help people who don’t have the luxury of a feast

In this May 5, 2008, file photo, a Pakistani laborer sieves the wheat during the wheat harvest on the outskirt of Lahore, Pakistan. At last count, 45 million people around the world are now teetering on the edge of famine.
Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

Nothing can bring people together like a meal. For many Americans, that’s especially true on Thanksgiving Day.

Families this week will travel down the street or hundreds of miles to gather with loved ones, catch up after a long year and spoon out a second helping of stuffing.

Providing a Thanksgiving feast with all the fixings for your family is a blessing and a point of pride. Providing for a “silent guest” this holiday could make you prouder still.

As president and CEO of World Food Program USA, the U.S.-based nonprofit that supports the mission of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate United Nations World Food Programme, I think often about ways that American supporters — so generous throughout the year — can voice their advocacy among family and friends to end world hunger. This holiday season, I encourage everyone with the means to celebrate to look toward the past for inspiration.

In 1947, with the fallout of World War II and shortfalls in crop production, many European families faced food shortages and hunger. In an act of support and solidarity driven by activists and leaders in government, families all over the United States left a place setting open at their Thanksgiving tables for a “silent guest.” It was a somber reminder of those who had too little.

In addition to the powerful symbol, families put aside the cost of feeding the silent guest to fund food relief efforts in Europe. Those contributions fed thousands and bolstered many until the Marshall Plan the following year could begin the continent’s restoration in earnest. Food brought people hope, as it ever does.

Our world once again faces a hunger crisis. The Four Cs — conflict, climate change, COVID-19, and, most recently, rising costs of food — have brought far too many to hunger’s door.

At last count, 45 million people are now teetering on the edge in 43 countries, and the slightest shock will push them over into famine. Add to that the more than 230 million additional people who are forced to skip meals and who suffer malnutrition because there’s simply not enough food.

This Thanksgiving, between the well-earned joy and bountiful dishes, I challenge all Americans to give thanks and think of the silent guest they could invite to share in a meal.

Think of Yemen, where the key drivers of crisis — the ongoing conflict and economic decline — show no signs of abating. As a result, hunger is rising and 16.2 million people, more than half the population, face acute hunger.

Or think of southern Madagascar. For the first time ever, famine-like conditions have been driven not by conflict but climate change and drought. These conditions have left families helpless and forced some to get by with foods of little nutritional value, such as cactus fruit.

Or think of Syria, or Guatemala, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Honduras, or Afghanistan, or any of the 88 countries where the World Food Programme operates. Unfortunately, after many years of progress in alleviating chronic hunger around the world, recent years have seen a backslide, and 2022 will be its most challenging yet.

Millions of families don’t have the luxury of a Thanksgiving feast. Millions of families don’t even have the luxury of knowing where their next meal will come from.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s give them that next meal. I’m inviting the silent guest to my table, and I hope many around the country will do the same in support of the U.N. World Food Programme.

Barron Segar is the president and CEO at World Food Program USA.