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ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving

From dust we came, and to dust we will return.

But between those two truths is a whole lot of life to be lived and work to be done.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the season of Lent, a time for reflection on how God’s intentions for the world – and how far our current reality is from that promise. It is a time to reflect on death and to repent for the ways in which we have allowed God’s promise of life to remain hidden from our own eyes and the eyes of our neighbors. Lent is a reminder of our own wanderings in the wilderness, away from our Creator.

Yet, Lent is also a reminder of the road ahead. The ashes are a reminder of mortality; the empty cross that they form on our foreheads is a reminder of the resurrection. We repent for how far we have strayed from God’s plans for us – and how far God has come to find us.

This Lent, ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving draws together the themes of repentance, self-reflection and renewal by focusing on the four spiritual practices, or disciplines, of the season: self-reflection and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving, and works of love.

We are formed in these disciplines to be church – together and for the sake of the world. After a generation in the wilderness, the Hebrews came to the Promised Land as a people consecrated by God to be a “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). After facing down temptation, Jesus returned to Galilee and declared the “good news” to the people (Luke 4:18). The journey of Lent is not the end of the story, for them or for us.

There is life to be lived and work to be done between the dust from which we came and the dust to which we shall return.

ELCA World Hunger, as a ministry of this church, is shaped by the Lenten disciplines. In repentance, we recognize the ways sin continues to disrupt communities and contribute to hunger and poverty. Through the ancient practices of prayer and fasting, we are renewed in our commitment to “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). By sacrificial giving, we support ministries around the world that give our neighbors a chance at new life and livelihoods. And in works of love, we accompany our neighbors toward a just world where all are fed.

In Lent, we “take hold of the promise” of God’s grace together, knowing that the road does not end at Calvary but at an empty tomb – and the assurance of new life for us, for our neighbors and for all of God’s creation. It is the promise of a world in which all shall be filled, that turns us to the work of ending the hunger that confronts us.

There are resources available at to help you and your congregation be part of this effort. A Lenten calendar, with verses from scripture, reflections on Lent, and short snippets of stories from projects we support together can be used by individuals and families. Coin jar wrappers can be printed and attached to glass jars or cans to collect gifts this season, and a Lenten devotional study with discussion questions and reflections can be used at home or in small groups. There is also a promotional video that can be shared via e-newsletters or during services.

If you plan to lead your congregation in this effort, there is also a handy leader’s guide with tips on how to get started. A weekly email series is also available.

This Lent, journey with ELCA World Hunger and congregations across this church as we share in the work to which God has called us – and, in the words of Martin Luther, “take hold of the promise” of what is to come.

How is your zucchini looking?

Most anyone who grows up in the mid-west knows the saying, “knee high by the 4th of July.” It describes the average size of corn this time of year. The saying came to mind last weekend as I looked at my family’s backyard garden. We aren’t growing any corn, but our other plants are looking lively. They’re not full grown and ready to harvest yet, but it won’t be too much longer. Of  course it’s the same for all gardeners in this general latitude. And everyone knows what that means: zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes available for the taking in workplace kitchenettes, in church fellowship halls, from next door neighbors. So why is it that some are hungry at this time of year, when so many others have food to give away?

I recently spoke with Carol at an organization that’s trying to change that: AmpleHarvest. They are a national not-for-profit whose purpose is to connect gardeners who have excess produce with food pantries that can take it. Their website,, allows gardeners to search by location for nearby food pantries that accept fresh food. When I talked to Carol, she explained that they currently have almost 4000 food pantries registered… but there are some 30,000 in the U.S. So she asked if we could help with a couple of things:

1) If you are involved with a food pantry, ask them to register. It’s free, and all the panty has to do is fill out a short form on their website. The pantry can specify things like what types of produce they can accept, and what times of day or week they can take it. Since many of them don’t have refrigeration, this is important; they can’t store fresh food very long and may need people to pick it up fairly soon after they receive it.

2) If you are a gardener (or know someone who is), tell them about AmpleHarvest. Gardeners can go to the, enter their location, and see if there are any nearby pantries that will accept their surplus. (And the more pantries that register, the more luck gardeners will have using the site; see request 1.)

These seem like really simple yet helpful requests, so I pass them on to you. Please help! If you want to go a step further, the AmpleHarvest website has additional resources like fliers you can post at your local garden store. Together we can help ensure the bountiful harvest of summer and fall is eaten and not wasted.

-Nancy Michaelis

The Dark Side?

Last week I had the good fortune to attend the Bread for the World National Gathering in Washington, D.C. If you’ve never gone, I highly recommend it. Generally speaking, you spend a few days learning about hunger issues and current, related legislation, and then you spend a day visiting your elected officials on Capitol Hill. It was a wonderful event, the content of which was inspiring, thought-provoking, troubling, challenging, and hopeful. 

But tucked into the thoughtfully-planned agenda, I glimpsed a telltale problem. It was not a problem with the event itself, but rather something less tangible…

Two incidents drew my attention to the problem. In the first, a group of maybe 25 or 30 people were going around a circle introducing themselves. As you might expect, many who attended the Gathering represented church groups, worked in food pantries, or had other non-profit work backgrounds. Then we reached a man who gave his name and said, “I’m from the dark side. I’m an engineer in the private sector.”

What does it mean when a person feels compelled to introduce himself as being from “the dark side” simply because he works for a corporation?

The second incident that gave me pause was at dinner Monday night. Sitting next to me was a scientist who works for a not-for-profit on improving the nutritional quality of seed, fertilizers, and food storage. She explained that her organization works with the private sector to get these higher-nutrient inputs into the food system. Then our keynote speaker took the stage: Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist. He spoke with passion about the problems with industrial food production systems and the way they harm our health. At the end, the woman next to me turned to me and said angrily, “He’s not a nutritionist or an agronomist, and he just dismissed everything we do.”

These incidents got my attention because here were two people committed to fighting hunger, attending an anti-hunger event, and both felt marginalized because they are associated with for-profit industries. And therein lies the problem. How many caring, interested, capable people never get involved because they feel insulted or excluded by a culture that vilifies the private sector? 

It’s a human tendency to simplify and generalize  complex issues to make them more manageable. But as we engage in this work, it’s important to remember that things are rarely black and white. We only make ending hunger harder if we don’t welcome diversity and seriously consider how people and institutions with a variety of viewpoints, motivators, and gifts can help.

-Nancy Michaelis

Act to end HIV/AIDS this month

HIV virus

Are you old enough to remember when AIDS was “discovered?” How did it affect you at the time? What were you thinking about it in those early years when contracting HIV/AIDS was a guaranteed death sentence?

Or are you young enough that AIDS has always been part of the world? It’s something to avoid if at all possible, but should you become infected, you’ve always known that in wealthy countries like the U.S there are treatments. It is a manageable disease.

If you’ve been watching the news, you may know that June 5th marked 30 years since the first report about the illness was published. At that point, no one knew what it was, and it didn’t yet have the names HIV or AIDS. Medical knowledge has come a tremendous distance in that time. According to this article in the Washington Post, instead of receiving a death sentence, a 20-year old diagnosed today can expect to live to be 70 with proper treatment. And, as I learned from a radio interview with the CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, those who are HIV-positive and take appropriate medications and precautions have only a 4% chance of transmitting the disease.

Yet significant challenges remain, scientific, social, and logistical. Scientifically, the drugs can have tough side affects, and there’s still no cure. Socially, the stigma of being HIV-positive or living with AIDS  is still significant. It prevents people from getting tested and seeking treatment. And that’s a crime when proper treatment not only saves the individual, but also cuts transmission by 96%! That’s so close to stopping it! Logistically, education, treatment, and support are unattainable or simply unavailable in many parts of the world.

Like most serious diseases, people suffering from untreated HIV/AIDS are much more likely to also suffer from hunger or poverty.  Ending the disease – or at least ensuring people everywhere get proper treatment – would help a lot in reducing hunger. It helps both those inflicted with the disease, and it help their children. So take action this month. June 27 is National HIV Testing Day. Get the test yourself, both to know your status and to show others it’s okay to get tested. Make a donation to the ELCA HIV/AIDS Campaign. Your money is used both domestically and internationally to provide such things as HIV/AIDS education, access to tests and treatment, and support of AIDS orphans. And spread the word that we all have a part to play in ending HIV/AIDS. If you’re not sure how to get started, resources to help are available here. There are lots of ways to help; please get involved.

-Nancy Michaelis

Animal-less meat?

Would you eat a hamburger that was never part of walking, breathing cow? Apparently we’re not too far from that as an option. Stem cell research is allowing scientists to take two cow stem cells, put them in a petri dish, and grow cow muscle, just like the kind we normally remove and consume from an actual animal. Okay, in practice the process of growing meat in a dish is a little more complicated than that. But not in concept or result. Because the petri dish meat came from cow cells to start with, the resulting meat is, indeed, “real” meat.  You can read about it in an article in the May 23rd issue of The New Yorker titled, “Test-Tube Burgers.” 

Why would we want to eat meat from a lab? The article cites the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization when it explains “the global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty percent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That is more than all cars, trains, ships, and planes combined. Cattle consume nearly ten percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty percent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat.” Then there are the well-documented problems of waste lagoons, use of antibiotics, and the treatment of animals in industrial meat production facilities. Add to all that the growing world population and the increase in demand for meat as countries like India and China get wealthier, and the current system for providing meat seems rather unsustainable. The petri dish offers a potential alternative that could mitigate or eliminate many of these issues. Perhaps the better question is why wouldn’t we want to eat meat from a lab?

There’s certainly an ick factor.  It’s similar to the notion, in the culture of the U.S., of eating insects, though they, too, offer an potentially excellent source of protein without some of the drawbacks of meat (something I blogged about a long time ago). But at least bugs are naturally occurring in nature. Meat in a lab wouldn’t happen without people and labs, which makes it more suspect – at least to me. The New Yorker article points out “lab-grown meat raises powerful questions about what most people see as the boundaries of nature and the basic definitions of life.” And yet, if lab meat could be produced in large quantities inexpensively (as they think will ultimately happen), could help provide food and good nutrition to people who can’t afford “traditional” meat, and if it could be done without many of the currently problematic impacts of meat production, what does refusing to eat it say?

I hesitate, but I think I would eat it. What do you think? Would you try lab-grown meat?

Nancy Michaelis

Hunger is about so much more than food

I’ve been watching the news of the Mississippi river flooding with interest. In any immediate way, it has nothing to do with me. I’m hundreds of miles away, going about my days. But at the same time, the news coverage gives me pause beyond the horrible fascination of watching a disaster.

Disasters are impressively good at causing or exacerbating hunger. The immediate causes are obvious: if your house is under water, where do go? Where will you get food if roads, grocery stores, and restaurants are under water, too? How do you get potable water if the water treatment facilities aren’t functioning? This is all well known. Infrastructure destruction gets lots of attention because it’s so dramatic; it makes for good TV. But as I watch, I can’t help but recognize how little separates me from hunger. We in the U.S. rely on our infrastructure so completely, yet on a daily basis, I rarely acknowledge it. It’s just there, reliable and ubiquitous. Until it isn’t.

The longer-term impacts are equally problematic, and usually so quiet. I can almost guarantee I won’t hear anything about this flood by September, but it will still be a current event in the sense that its effects will not have ended. Besides people’s homes, how many businesses have been flooded? How long will it take them to reopen, as insurance claims are filed and renovating or rebuilding is done? How long will people be out of their jobs as they wait for companies to reopen? Even worse, how many businesses will not survive an extended closing? And how many didn’t have insurance to start with, taking the risk of establishing a business (or home!) in an uninsurable floodplain location? Some won’t even try to start again. What are the tax implications to already strapped states if a swath of their industrial base isn’t functioning or even goes away? How many years does that impact last, and how does it affect the public as governments make budget decisions? There are so many ways a disaster changes the economic situation, and therefore the hunger and poverty situation.

Then there are the direct and long-term environmental impacts to hunger as a result of flooded farmland. Some of this country’s most fertile land is currently covered in water – just in time for the spring planting. As the flood waters drain, in some places topsoil will be washed away. In others, soil will be contaminated by whatever the river picked up along the way. Will there be long-term consequences to field productivity and, consequently, food supplies? Productive, arable land is obviously an important factor in hunger (especially as the global population increases; see David’s last post), and one we don’t think too much about in this very fertile country.

So many things that impact hunger from one seemingly localized and distant flood (albeit a big one)! One thing disasters make clear: fighting hunger is so much more than giving people food.

-Nancy Michaelis


I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the food issues of my life and our world this week. It’s partly an occupational hazard, working in world hunger. But it’s also just life, and sometimes it hits me harder than others. This week, it’s been a variety of small things that have added up to seemingly constant encounters with the problems and my feelings of insufficiency in addressing them.

Perhaps it started with the spoiled spinach in my refrigerator. One thing I hate is to throw away what should have been really good food, but this bag of organic spinach got away on me. I didn’t get around to using it quickly enough, and when I did finally open it, parts were slimy. This irritates me for a variety of reasons: 1) I wasted money paying for the organic food I didn’t use; 2) I didn’t cook the nutritious meal I had intended when I bought the spinach and instead probably ate something more convenient and less healthy (and therefore my family did, too); 3) I threw away food because I have so much of it available that I just didn’t get to it before it spoiled. That last one is espcially absurd in a world where so many are hungry. Irritating and self-inflicted, all of it.

Another day, I read that in a study of meat for sale in the U.S., nearly half of the samples tested were positive for staph bacteria, and most of the bacateria was a form that’s resistant to antibiotics. They attibuted it to the antibiotics given to animals to increase growth and (ironically) prevent infection in production facilities. That got me to thinking about where my most recent meat purchases came from, and, again, the risk to my family.

Even my dog’s food has been causing me challenges. He recently joined our family from a foster home where he had been eating a decent but ridiculously expensive food. We began the process of switching him to a better rated and less expensive food, only to have him throw it all up – more than once. Clearly finding something that we feel good about feeding him and yet will fit within our budget is going be more difficult (and unpleasant – for all of us!) than we had anticipated. Thinking about affordable, nutritious food for people is a big enough issue in our world. I admit: I hadn’t really considered the multi-million dollar pet food industry!

I could continue, but I’ll spare you. The point is that all these little, individual incidents add up. Some weeks I take it in stride, but other times I just want to quit thinking about food and eat whatever is easy, inexpensive, and tastes good. I can certainly understand how people end up eating fast food several days a week.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who sometimes feels overwhelmed by all the ways that food decisions impact us and our world. So, I take it upon myself to say: cut yourself some slack. No one can tackle it all, all of the time. So throw away the occassional bag of spinach, and eat a less-healthy, convenient meal once in a while.  Do what you need to rejuvinate, and come back fighting! I’ll try to do the same.

-Nancy Michaelis

Sharing the Good News!

I was reading Time Magazine a week or two ago, and it included a collection of articles on things that are going right in the world. Since that viewpoint sometimes seems in short supply, and since we are in the very hopeful season of Lent, I thought it might be nice to share the good news, so to speak. Here are some statistics from one of the articles that might make you a bit more optimistic about issues that cause hunger:

  • In 1960, in the Middle East and North Africa,  85% of women had a child die before the age of 5. Today, it’s down to 10%.
  • In 1980, 526,000 women died in childbirth worldwide. In 2008, that number dropped by more than a third, down to 343,000.
  • Worldwide, girls’ school enrollments have been increasing – even to the point of matching or exceeding boys’ enrollments in parts of the Middle East.
  • In 1984, there were 24 wars being fought in the world. In 2008, there were 5.

Another article in the series said that most people in Afghanistan now have access to basic health care, and school enrollment is up by 5 million kids since the Taliban fell.  Closer to home, the U.S. economy is getting a boost from the growing economies like China’s. In 2010, the U.S. has a 32% increase in exports to China, and overseas companies are investing in industry here, bringing jobs. “Not one of the 450 people who work in the U.S. for Chinese appliance maker Haier is from China.”

And in case all that consumption makes you nervous for the  health of the planet, still another article explained how Americans (especially younger ones) are reversing the trend by sharing more instead of buying. The number of people with Zipcar memberships has topped 500,000, and Internet sites that help people rent other people’s stuff are growing in popularity.

Here’s to hopefulness! May you have a wonderful Leten season!

Nancy Michaelis

It’s a small world

Nehemias and a couple of the children of El Jardin show us plants in their garden

I recently had the good fortune to visit an ELCA World Hunger-supported project in the villages of  El Jardin and San Julian, Costa Rica. There we met Nehemias Rivera Medina, an unassuming and inspiring man who is teaching the residents of these communities about organic gardening. On it’s surface it sounds pretty straight-forward, but it didn’t take long to see the impressive depth, and to find a lesson.

El Jardin and San Julian are small, rural villages surrounded by banana and pineapple plantations. For a couple of generations now, the plantations have been, by far, the primary source of employment. In that time, community members have lost their knowledge of how to grow their own food. So Nehemias is showing them how to grow vegetables and fruit as well as plants that can be made into useful things, like shampoo, insect repellent, and arthritis cream. The economic situation in these villages is difficult, so having a source of supplemental, nutritious food and household products is helpful. They also hope to one day sell some of their products for extra income. Nehemias is teaching them about raised planting beds (so everything doesn’t wash away in the rainy season), soil fertility, crop rotation, insect control through polyculture, and complimentary crops.

One of the places Nehemias is teaching is in the secondary school in San Julian. We met a student who told us that before taking Nehemias’ class, she didn’t know anything about growing plants. But they’ve learned a lot. They’re growing cucumbers, radishes, celery, yucca, and rose hips at school, and what they grow is being used in the school lunch program. They’ve learned to compost the leftovers. As she spoke, it struck me what a small world it is. It sounded so familiar! These are the same types of things that are being done in American schools, in Chicago’s schools, close to where I live. We, also, have lost the knowledge about growing things. We, also, are trying to teach our children about better nutrition, especially in locations of low income that lack easy access to supermarkets and produce. We, also, are working in schools and through lunch programs.

But Nehemias’ aims don’t stop with what’s strictly practical. Beyond the techniques of growing plants, he’s teaching that eco-agriculture provides artistic, aesthetic, and therapuetic benefits, allowing people to use their gifts in the care of God’s creation – care that includes the plants and creatures around them as well as themselves. So much more than gardening, Nehemias teachs that the ecological sanctuary they are building is an alter constructed to life. The garden beds in El Jardin are not just rectangles. Some are shaped like hearts, or stars, or follow the contours of walking paths. They are shapes chosen by the children. Garden beds include flowers with the vegetables to attract bees and birds, but also because flowers are beautiful. They are constructed on church property, where anyone who wants to is welcome to participate. In addition to feeding the villagers’ bodies and providing income, Nehemias is showing them how gardens feed their communities, their souls, and all of God’s creation.  What a lesson for us all.

What has your computer done for you lately?

My office is a little crazy right now. A recent restructuring has led to a physical reorganization as well. Fewer people and changed departments mean that most of us are moving to new floors and cubicles. When the IT guys showed up to move my computer and phone today, I was at a loss. What work could I do without a computer?

At home we also have a computer (more than one, truth be told) and high-speed Internet access. We’ve had these things for years now, and only when the cable goes out do I realize how I’ve come to rely on them. From making plans to go out to dinner with friends, to looking up how late the library is open on Saturday, I stop at the computer several times a day.  When my young daughter asks me something and I don’t know the answer, she’ll respond, “Well why don’t you look it up on the computer?” It won’t be long until she’ll be doing it herself. I’ve seen her watching me, trying to figure out how. (As soon as she learns how to spell, I’ll have to get serious about those parental controls!)

All of this computer literacy is, for me and my family, second nature. Which is why I was a little startled to realize recently that my skills may not be up to snuff after all. Several of my friends in the corporate world now work with two monitors on their desks. You can drag things off the edge of one monitor and onto the other. You can read the email on one screen while reviewing the attached document on the other. I thought it was cool and a little Star Trek-y to watch one of my friends doing this, until I learned that it’s fairly common now, and I shouldn’t be so surprised. Then I was a little alarmed; how far behind are my computer skills? How well would I compete if I were looking for a job?

Luckily for me, I have education, friends, and resources that can catch me up pretty quickly. But what if you don’t? It’s not just about job skills, though that’s critically important. But it’s also about access to information, the amount of time you have to spend getting it, and the ease or difficulty of daily living. For example, we haven’t had a printed phone book in our house for years. I assume they still exist, but they probably won’t forever. Will everyone have computers by then, or will some people simply lack access to basic things like phone numbers and listings of plumbers? How much harder is life when you can’t readily get to the single biggest source of information? How big are the additional barriers to getting out of poverty? And for those of us in more fortunate circumstances, what’s our role in removing those barriers – or preventing them in the first place?

-Nancy Michaelis