William Lambers: Harry Truman’s Easter push to address world hunger can inspire us today
Sat., April 16, 2022
This Easter, we are in the midst of a horrific global hunger crisis that is fast escalating due to the war in Ukraine. As a major source of wheat, Ukraine is a lifeline for many poor countries. Without access to these precious resources, relief operations are hindered as global food prices continue to climb.
What can be done to address the hunger crisis? To cope with the shortages and higher prices, funding for global food aid programs can be increased. History shows us this can be done if we each sacrifice a little.
That’s what President Harry S. Truman did at Easter in 1946, a year that witnessed another major food crisis in the wake of World War II. Truman canceled the traditional Easter Egg Roll at the White House and cut back on the White House Easter dinner. Such symbolic actions of sacrifice provided an example for citizens to follow. Everyone needed to be involved to save enough food to send overseas to feed the hungry.
There were severe food shortages globally in early 1946. Europe and Asia struggled to rebuild and get food production up and running again. That is one legacy of war; it leaves behind a hunger crisis that can extend years after the fighting has ceased. The weather offered no breaks in 1946 either. A very harsh winter in Europe further damaged agriculture.
Just before Easter 1946, Truman addressed the nation, recognizing the American people needed to mobilize to address the global famine. During a radio address, he hammered home the urgency of the crisis. “Now we cannot ignore the cry of hungry children. Surely we will not turn our backs on the millions of human beings begging for just a crust of bread. The warm heart of America will respond to the greatest threat of mass starvation in the history of mankind.” But Truman did more than serve as a role model.
He also took concrete steps to help keep millions of people from starving. He appointed former president Herbert Hoover as a food ambassador to travel to across 40 nations starting in March 1946, trying to build food supplies and encourage conservation. Hoover’s findings on the world food situation guided Congress in appropriating funds for hunger relief. The United States sponsored life-sustaining school lunches for millions of children in Germany, Japan, Austria and other countries.
Truman and Hoover also encouraged ordinary Americans to save food and donate. Famine emergency committees were formed at the local level to promote food conservation. A Washington Post article revealed that three out of four residents interviewed were making efforts to conserve food. In Connecticut, meetings were held to plan ways to mobilize the state in the saving of food. Newspapers published articles suggesting ways people could prevent food waste. These were basic tips such as how to properly store bread to make it last longer, using end slices and waiting for people to ask for seconds before putting more food on the table. The idea was that little things added up. Every bit someone did to save food accumulated into a whole bunch of food for the hungry.
Through these efforts, overseas relief committees sprang up around the United States in 1946 and held food drives for the world’s hungry. One man in Cincinnati was so inspired he walked into a food collection center and donated his whole paycheck to the relief effort.
Such activism and generosity reflected a historical tradition of mobilizing all of society to feed the hungry. Americans had long rallied to answer the cries of the hungry overseas going back to the Irish Famine of the 1840s. During World War I, Americans rallied to conserve food and donate to fight hunger in Europe. Now they were being called into action for an even bigger hunger crisis.
Truman encouraged Americans to continue the nation’s humanitarian tradition during Easter of 1946. The president told the nation, “We would not be Americans if we did not wish to share our comparative plenty with suffering people.” And so, churches cut back their celebrations to save food and money to donate to global hunger relief. At St. George’s Church in New York, the traditional large floral decorations were cut back. Instead, the parishioners elected to use the money for hunger relief collection. Many Americans understood that feeding the hungry, saving lives and preventing chaos would help win the post-war peace.
Easter’s message of peace and renewal of life made it a centerpiece in encouraging people to take action against hunger. But by no means was the effort limited to the one holiday or to the Christian faith alone. Members of other faiths pledged to help conserve food. It was understood as a collective effort. In fact, both churches and synagogues made a schedule of food conservation days.
Catholic Relief Services held a nationwide food drive for Easter week. The charity CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances for Europe, later renamed Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) where Americans could buy food packages for the world’s hungry, was getting started around this time. While the generosity of Americans at Easter and thereafter saved millions of people from starvation in 1946, we are facing the biggest global hunger crisis since that era.
Conflict, climate change and the pandemic have worsened hunger everywhere. Massive humanitarian emergencies have escalated in civil war-torn Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Sahel of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Drought has struck Madagascar, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, worsening existing food shortages. The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and other relief agencies are short on funding to provide relief in these crisis areas. The WFP, which leads hunger relief globally, had to reduce rations for 8 million people in Yemen because of low funding.
Eastertime has proved a particularly meaningful time for American Christians to share their holiday by donating to charities fighting hunger like WFP, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF, International Red Cross, Save the Children, Edesia and others. As the past shows, even using a small portion of Easter spending can make a big difference in the fight against hunger.
There can be no peace in a world where people suffer in hunger. As Truman said in 1946, “America cannot remain healthy and happy in the same world where millions of human beings are starving. A sound world order can never be built upon a foundation of human misery.” This Easter can once again be about sharing our resources to feed the world’s hungry and saving millions of lives.
William Lambers is the author of “Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace, and Ending World Hunger.” His writings have been published by USA Today, History News Network, Baltimore Sun and Spectrum, the official magazine of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.
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