It’s Thanksgiving and by chance I’ve been presented with an apropos topic to write about: Hunger. I can even tie it to free software, more or less, but it’s really about feeding people.
First, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s a great time to get together with friends and family and enjoy a great meal, with very little associated pressure. (In most cases.) Like many people, I’m fortunate to have a four day weekend, and I like that the big day is first so that you can just decompose for the next few days. Er, I meant: “decompress.” You won’t find me shopping on Black Friday, so that becomes just a day to relax. Thanksgiving day itself is mostly relaxing, but it can be a lot of work to prepare and eat all that food.
The most basic reason to give thanks: Having food to eat.
The idea of eating way too much food finally brings me to my topic today: the millions who don’t have enough to eat and are starving to death. It’s such a contrast, of course, and one I try not to think too much about. I often think about how fortunate and thankful I am to have been born in to the good circumstances of life in my country, but less often about those less fortunate in the poorest countries.
I had the opportunity this week to help feed some people in Haiti, and it was very satisfying. It wasn’t much, but it was great to find out about Kids Against Hunger and contribute just a little bit. I hope by writing about it here I can spread the message to a few more people. Maybe you’ll feel moved to contribute and I’ll have made a slightly bigger impact.
I work for a great company, although I haven’t written about it here since it’s my intention to keep this blog separate from my daytime employment. My group has regular team events, which previously have included going to St. Paul Saints baseball games and a Segway tour of Minneapolis. This month, the person organizing the event picked a service project at Kids Against Hunger. To me and I think the rest of the team, it was as enjoyable as the Segway tour. (Although where the Segway ride was just fun, this was rewarding yet sad, thinking about these starving people.)
All I knew was that we would be packaging up food for a couple of hours. I thought this would involve packing boxes and cans in to bigger boxes, but it was much more interesting than that.
Man on a Mission
Richard Proudfit is the founder of Feeding Children International, and he started things off by talking to us about the charity and showing us a video. It’s very inspiring and moving, what this guy has done and is doing. I recommend you check out their web site to learn more. I’ll mention some of it here but you can learn more there.
There’s a lot more to the story, but Richard came up with this complete nutritional food mix, accepted in virtually all countries. There are six servings per bag, and the food is prepared by boiling in water. He worked a lot in the beginning on getting the mix right. For example, at first there was too much protein so that starving children would tend to get sick. Too much for their malnourished condition, I guess. (I think. I hope my faulty memory won’t get facts wrong.) The mix has soy for protein, vegetables and chicken flavoring, rice to fill the stomach, and is fortified with vitamins and minerals. The cost is $0.23 per serving.
What goes on there?
What they do there is package up the food in to boxes and pallets for shipment around the world. 6 servings per bag X 36 bags per box X darn I can’t remember how many boxes per pallet. It’s a very large scale operation and they ship massive quantities of food. He currently has a couple of million food packages ready to go to Haiti.
There is some branding confusion, as the charity is called “Feeding Children International”, but their biggest program seems to be replacing the name as “Kids Against Hunger.” This is where they get a lot of kids to help with the packaging, which to me is a great idea for helping them understand the problem and get involved in the solution.
Or is it a solution? One depressing thought that stayed with me was if you can really eliminate hunger with this kind of method. But Richard’s enthusiasm and passion overcame that doubt to a large extent. There is no doubt it is good to give food to starving people. Hopefully we can also work on the root causes of poverty and hunger, but how can we just let starving children die?
Anyway, even though a big focus is on kids helping kids, anyone can get involved. Part of his plan is to spread out and establish hundreds of satellites. He mentioned machines they have now that can bag about 30 packages per minute (I think), and then told us about another machine that can do about 700 per minute. He said he needs five million dollars to get that one. In the meantime, and even then, there is plenty of manual packaging to be done by volunteers, and it seems to me it would still be a critical part of promoting the program. To get your hands in and actually prepare these packages. (Although the efficient techie/economist side of me can’t help but think that it’s kind of superfluous to have us slow humans doing the job that a machine can do so much better. There’s the future and our fate, perhaps, when intelligent machines can do everything.)
What did we do?
So there we were. We finally got to put on our aprons and hair nets and dig in. It’s all set up very nicely, and our team of 15 split in to two groups to fill the bags, two lines to weigh and seal them, and someone to box them. I was in one of the bag-filling groups. It’s very neat how everything is set. There were four bins with the four ingredients, and the four of us each had our job. Being techie geek types, we quickly worked to be as efficient as possible. One person would place the bag under a funnel structure as another scooped and poured a heaping cup of soy in. The bagger would put a heaping scoop of veggies in and I’d put a precise measure of vitamins in. As the final guy put a heaping scoop of rice in, I’d have dropped my scoops and would be reaching in and grabbing the bag out. Every now and then we’d fill a box and get out of sync for a moment as I turned to hand it off and get an empty.
I enjoyed it, although I think the novelty would wear off along with your shoulder tendons if you did it for an extended period of time. The rhythm of our routine with the different kinds of food being scooped and dropped in sounded like a song. It was the beginning of “Money,” by Pink Floyd, we joked. It was also fun to rag on each other about missteps. I seemed to have quite a few with all that box context-switching. I’m pretty cynical about team-building kinds of things, but we do have a good team and these events have been good for reinforcing that. And for the job we were doing, it felt good to hear all the activity and bustle and think we were doing a small part to help people in desperate need of it.
The bag is labeled at 390 grams and it was amazing how consistently you could meet that with this process. Once in a while the next step in the line would chide us for being light (which then it would slow them down as they added some rice), but for the most part we did well. At one point we switched around to do different things.
In the End
In about an hour to an hour and a half that we worked, we filled 21 boxes. That’s 756 bags and 4536 servings. Although they gave us each a bag to bring home, so that cut in to our total by about 90 servings. They cooked a batch for us to sample, and it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. I got to thinking I might like to have a box as an emergency supply. You know: have to be prepared for that bird flu. Someone heard the food will keep in the bags for up to three years before starting to lose nutritional value, and still be good for a couple of years after that. I’m seriously considering going back there and asking to buy a box at a markup to cover the materials and provide a donation.
There’s a lot more I could say, but the time is late and the post long. Please take a look at the Kids Against Hunger web site. If you have any satellites near you, consider giving it a try. You don’t need a large group to go in there and contribute your time and labor. Some people go in by themselves. You won’t regret it. We were lucky to meet and listen to the founder, but I bet it would be just as well to meet whatever good people are running any local satellite. If not your time, they can also use monetary donations, of course. I’m adding them to my yearly donation list.
I can see trying to make this a new tradition, to try helping out around Thanksgiving every year. (Of course, if I was a better person, it would be much more often.) Maybe I can get my family to go along. It really highlights how much we have to be thankful for. And it’s a nice counterweight to the degenerating spirit of the holiday season.
I had it in mind to make this be about free software and culture also, just a little bit, but that will wait for another day. I hope you enjoyed this way-off-topic post, and I hope you have a good holiday if you are here in the United States, and if not, that you have much to be thankful for and that you also enjoy yourself. :-)