“You’d better finish your dinner,” mom scolds as the young boy idly toys with his food. “Don’t you know there are children starving in India?’’ And there he sits, staring guiltily at his mashed squash, wondering about that faraway boy with his empty plate. Then it comes to him. He finds an envelope, and, with a relieved smile, pours in the offending vegetable. With a red crayon he scrawls “INDIA” across the front and drops it in the nearest mailbox.

It’s an old joke, and I know, there’s nothing funny about world hunger . . . but it seems that’s how we, as Americans, have been handling the problem for years. Our individual and collective conscience gets pricked and we address our aid the best we know how — exporting a so-called “green revolution” of high technology, economic aid, “miracle” plant hybrids, fertilizers, pesticides, corporate know-how — but somehow the package never quite reaches its destination. Then we’re told that it’s just too late: world-wide food shortage is unavoidable; there are too many people; too little fertile land; it’s just a matter of time. So we send over some contraceptives, whisper “good luck,” and hold our breath.

Well, according to Frances Moore Lappe (and co-author Dr. Joseph Collins) — in a theory laid out quite convincingly in Food First, Beyond the Myth of Scarcity — we should breathe a little easier. It’s not that the problem of world hunger is incurable; we’ve just had it diagnosed wrong. After years of painstaking research into the root causes of world hunger, they conclude:

“There is no such thing today as absolute scarcity. Every country in the world has the capacity to feed itself. . . . Hunger, in fact, is not the problem at all. Hunger is the symptom of a disease, and we are its victims in much the same way as are the nomads in Mali or the peasants in India. . . . The heaviest constraint on food production and distribution turns out to be the inequality generated by our type of economic system — the system now being exported to the underdeveloped countries as the supposed answer to their food problems. We are not saying that the solution to hunger lies in better distribution — getting the food to the hungry rather than the well-fed. We are saying something else: that food distribution only reflects the more fundamental issue of who controls and who participates in the production process. Thus to accept the challenge of Food First is to accept the challenge of confronting the basic assumptions of our present economic system. . . . It is the land monopolizers, both the traditional landed elites and corporate agribusiness, that have proved themselves to be the most inefficient, unreliable, and destructive users of food resources. The only guarantee of long-term productivity and food security is for people to take control of food resources here and in other countries.”

Yes, this is the same Frances Moore Lappe who, in Diet For a Small Planet taught us how to mix our grains and beans for complete, meatless protein. That now classic book was a first step in her search for ways to live more compatibly with the Earth’s natural resources. She went on to found the Institute For Food and Development Policy (1885 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103) which researches and provides educational material about world hunger.

Speaking with her recently in Chapel Hill, where she was part of a University of North Carolina symposium, she seemed someone I’d be more likely to bump into in a suburban supermarket, squeezing the fruit, than on a college campus, preaching economic revolution. Her manner was buoyant and persuasive like a concerned friend sharing the latest neighborhood news — and backed by the force of her conviction, the news seemed vital.

— Howard Jay Rubin

SUN: What is the extent of world hunger and what should people know about it?

LAPPE: Most important is to address a basic misconception: we cannot blame nature for our widespread hunger. There is no correlation between scarcity of resources, density of population, and hunger. Hunger exists where there is a small minority of people who control the resources and use them for their benefit.

Even in the underdeveloped countries, everyone can be self-sufficient, meeting basic needs. That’s true even in countries like Bengladesh, which we have been told are hopeless basket cases of over-population. Studies have shown that not only can Bengladesh feed itself, but it could export food. What prevents this are social, not physical, constraints. A minority elite controls the resources and that means that the development is thwarted because — just as in our own country — where people who work the land don’t own it, there’s no incentive. Resources never really develop to the fullest.

So that’s our overall thesis — that the problem of hunger, although it is widespread and deepening, is human-made, not made by nature. By approaching this as a problem of production we only increase hunger. If you supply new technology, those who take advantage of it already have equity in their hands, and credit, and political pull. Therefore, they are able to expand, and of course, they expand not in a vacuum, but by pushing off the land those who are less well-positioned, who don’t have legal title to the land, and don’t have lawyers to defend them. So when the new technology is introduced, production may very well go up, but at the same time, the most vulnerable people are made landless, and landlessness increases at a faster rate than the natural population. They don’t have the land to feed themselves and they don’t have the jobs to provide the income with which to buy food.

That’s the way it is from the village up to the level of national trade: increasing concentration of control, greater production, and yet more hunger than twenty years ago.

SUN: Where do you look for a solution?

LAPPE: We speak to the responsibility of the American. We make the point that our responsibility is not to think that we can go into other countries and set things straight. Our responsibility is to make sure that we’re not contributing to the problem by shoring up dictatorial regimes. Our tax dollars are supporting governments that are repressing the efforts of the poor to redistribute control of the land. We must stop that aid.

This is very difficult for Americans to hear, because they think it is negative, and they want to do something positive. It’s important to communicate that the most positive thing you can do is remove the obstacles in the path of the poor.

SUN: Who makes the decisions about where food goes in the world? Corporations? Governments?

LAPPE: Basically, food flows to those who make a demand on the market, to those who have money. It’s not as if there is a plot; it’s a natural result of the market, and the combination of market distribution and extremely unequal control of resources.

The most dramatic example of this is grain feeding to livestock. Over the past ten years, about a third of the world’s grain has been used to feed livestock. Today, about half the grain produced in the world goes to feed livestock, even though there are more hungry people now. This shows that what happens to our production is not related to need; it’s related to who has the money. Those who can afford to buy grain-fed meat can outbid the needs of the hungry who want corn and beans. In Brazil, for example, where there is widespread hunger, forty-four percent of the grains produced there go to feed livestock. In Mexico, where the majority of the rural children are malnourished, one-third of the grain goes to feed livestock. I think those are very graphic examples of how we can increase production — even double production — and still have widespread starvation.

SUN: In Diet For a Small Planet you advocate vegetarianism as a personal way of addressing this problem.

LAPPE: I don't use the word vegetarianism because I think that term should be used for the refusal to eat meat for ethical reasons, not wanting to contribute to the needless slaughter of livestock.

I’m suggesting that a diet which is plant-centered is most in alignment with what our bodies need and can use. More and more evidence is coming out that it is the healthiest diet, in terms of prevention of illness, from heart disease to cancer. The point about diet in Diet For a Small Planet, and particularly in the tenth anniversary edition [which came out last year], is that as we take more responsibility for making choices that align our lives with our vision of how the world could work more fairly, we become more powerful. We become more convincing to ourselves, and therefore more convincing to other people.

In making these individual choices, we are also making a statement that it is possible for us as individuals to have real impact on the world, not just be the victims of a system we have learned to take for granted.

SUN: Are there other personal choices we can make, in terms of food, to help alleviate world hunger?

LAPPE: We can choose not only what food to eat but also where we purchase the food. More and more communities have worker-owned food distribution, so that we don’t have to shop at supermarkets which are importing beef raised in Central American or pesticide-contaminated vegetables from Mexico. We can choose to shop at a food co-op where we can have a say in the quality; we can also have a say in whether or not these food institutions support family-owned businesses. So that is another level — asking where food comes from.

SUN: The great American belief is that you need a lot of meat or protein to be healthy. What are your views on that?

LAPPE: In Diet For a Small Planet, I stick to the U.S. government-approved standards. But even that standard is much less than most Americans consume. Without questioning the government standard, if one wanted to construct a diet with no meat at all in it, or no dairy products — I’m not advocating a no meat or dairy diet, you understand — theoretically it is quite easy to obtain the protein that your body needs, using only a plant source of protein.

The average American consumes twice the amount of protein he or she can use. We can’t store protein, so if you eat more than you can use, it’s wasted. Many of us who eat meat every day consume three times what our bodies can use. If one is eating a healthy diet, with low sugars and low fatty foods, there is really no worry about protein. You’re covered.

SUN: What kind of a diet do you eat?

LAPPE: I eat a lot of grain, fruits, vegetable, and some diary, but primarily grain. In California it is easy to eat a really delicious plant-centered diet because there are so many fruits and vegetables. My weaknesses? Oh, I occasionally indulge in a croissant — things like this. But I’ve lost my taste for sweets. I do believe those things are addictive: the more you eat, the more you want; the less you eat, the less you want.

I used to be a compulsive eater, so I know what it’s like to be constantly occupied with food in a very negative way, to be controlled by it. I think that eating a whole foods diet really does move one away from that.

SUN: How did you get involved in this kind of work?

LAPPE: I was just trying to figure out why there’s so much suffering when it all seems so unnecessary. I figured that if I could focus on food, understand why people are hungry, that would be the door that would open to the more complex economic and political questions. And it worked that way. I think choosing a focus is very important. This began in the late Sixties. Everyone was very influenced by the ecology movement. I was concerned about figuring out how close we were to the earth’s limits. And I discovered that humanity’s hunger problems are human-made; they have nothing to do with the limits of the earth to produce.

SUN: Are you hopeful that there will be a significant change in the problem in our lifetime?

LAPPE: I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, but I see some very positive strides. For example, our institute has been an adviser on grain food to Nicaragua. That is the single most encouraging story in my life. People have gone from literally the worst malnutrition in Central America, perhaps the world, to making a significant dent within just five years. Infant mortality has decreased by a third, which is largely a result of more health care and more food available to more people. The fact that in five years there can be such dramatic changes is the most inspiring example in my life of what human beings can do if their energies are liberated.

SUN: Edwin Meese made the comment recently that there is no hunger in America. According to your studies, what do you think is the real extent of hunger in America?

LAPPE: The most damning evidence of hunger in America has to do with infant mortality. Throughout the world, the infant death rate is the measure that is used, because it is directly related to the nutritional well-being of the mother. We use that to judge underdeveloped countries, and so I think we should use it to judge our own. If we do, the evidence is very damning, because in our central cities, in Chicago or Detroit, the infant death rate is as high as in some third world countries. It is partly related to lack of medical care. It’s estimated that one-quarter of all women in the U.S. receive no pre-natal care. So I’m not saying that it’s all nutrition, but it is a very real contributing factor.

I’ve seen studies about doctors, examining poor children, finding one of every ten children physically stunted by malnutrition. Malnutrition has to be fairly longstanding before you actually see stunting. It’s not just a question of anemia, but actual physical stunting.

So the evidence is fairly dramatic that there is hunger in America. Imagine landing here from another planet. You would see with totally fresh eyes that we ship almost forty percent of our agricultural commodities abroad. We have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. And still there are cases of malnutrition. It’s outrageous.

What we are trying to do at the institute is reorient people’s thinking about malnutrition — not think of it as a charity question, or how we can simply improve food stamp programs or infant and children’s programs. Rather we want people to see that hunger is a sign that we still don’t have the right to survive, and that this right should be a given.