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The Right to Food on World Food Day

by Imelda V. Abano

When I visited a dumpsite last week to do a story about scavengers, I saw a group of children sifting through mountains of trash and asked: “What do you do when you’re hungry?” They stared and laughed at me before replying: “When we’re hungry, we just tighten our belts.”

I asked the same question to one of the children’s mother, Elena Pugong, who was standing next to me. I was surprised that she gave the same answer: “Yes, we simply tighten our belts so that we cannot feel that we are hungry!”

Elena is just 35 years old, but she looks much older. She has five children. She sorts with her bare hands through the putrid waste, looking for anything of value – plastics, some glass, aluminum, bits of cardboard or metal – and stuffs her finds into a sack. Elena rises at 4am; 13 hours later, she will have filled several sacks, each weighing around 40 kilos, with recycled detritus. After 13 hours of work, she tosses her sacks up onto her back and hauls them to the middlemen. They will buy everything she and her children have managed to salvage in a day – and for that effort, she collects a measly $18 USD. Then she goes home to a nearby slum to prepare the family meal.

Just like other scavengers here in the Philippines, Elena lives in a condition unfathomable to most Americans.

“We have been living off rubbish dump food. People laugh at us because we eat rubbish food. Sometimes I have to beg for food for my children. Life is hard in the dump,” Elena says, simply shrugging when asked how they survive every day.

And Elena is only one story – one real person who has opened my thinking to the terrible reality of survival and hunger and poverty.

On World Food Day (October 16), I am reminded of my encounter with those children and Elena, who are living off the dump. It is a sad truth that in today’s day and age, 850 million people around the world – half of them children – are still deprived of enough food to eat.

This year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations celebrates World Food Day with the theme “The Right to Food”. The Right to Food is the right of every person to have regular access to sufficient amounts of nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food in order to live an active, healthy life. It is the right to the dignity of being able to feed oneself, rather than the right to be fed.

According to the FAO, by recognizing the The Right to Food, governments acknowledge their obligation to respect, protect and fulfill this right. In order to achieve the World Food Summit objective and number one Millennium Development Goal of reducing worldwide hunger by half by 2015, strenuous efforts must be made to give a voice to the hungry and to strengthen governments’ capacities to meet their obligations.

“The right to food is not a utopia. It can be realized for all. Some countries are on the way to doing this, but everyone should contribute to make this happen,” says Barbara Ekwall, Coordinator of the Right to Food Unit, in a FAO statement.

The latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were recently released: it warned that future climate change is expected to put close to 50 million more people at risk of hunger by 2020; the numbers then rise to an additional 132 million by 2050, and 266 million more by 2080.

Across Asia, millions of poor people are living on $1 USD a day or less. Needless to say, most of them suffer from chronic hunger, which means that their daily intake of calories is insufficient for them to lead active and healthy lives. In the Philippines alone, a survey indicates that 3.8 million families experience having nothing to eat.

Conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), a social research institution in the Philippines, the survey shows that the national percentage of families who have experienced nothing to eat has risen to a high of 21.5% of the population, or 3.8 million.

According to economics analyst Cielito F. Habito, failure to address the hunger problem in the country would invariably have an impact on human resources. He urges the Philippine government to strengthen its job-generation programs, as hunger is usually caused by unemployment and poverty.

So on World Food Day, I will be remembering the children and their parents who live in the dump. This problem will not go away. They are at the dump because every day, they do not have enough food to eat. Today, those people will be hungry, and they will tighten their belts yet again – along with millions of poor people around the world. And unless we continue to support efforts to reduce poverty, hunger and unemployment, they will go hungry again tomorrow.

About the Author

Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children’s issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.

In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.

Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.

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