essays on suffering and awakening

How can we feed everyone?

A lot of the wisest people out there are all about feeding others. 

The Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba was famous for both the power of his love and the fact that he always made sure his devotees were fed. Christ performed the miracle of feeding a crowd of thousands with a few loaves and fishes. One of the most enlightened people who I’ve spent time with, a man named Joe, ran a sober living home where he cooked for his residents every night. 

They all felt that it was as important for the people around them to have full stomachs as it was it was for them to have open hearts and minds.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

Nearly 15 percent of the United States population doesn’t get enough food to eat. That’s almost 20 million people; or 1.5 million in Los Angeles County alone. Worldwide, that figure is close to 1 billion. 

When I see numbers that big, my eyes usually glaze over. But if we actually take a moment to think about it, that’s shocking. Think about how you feel if you miss a meal. Not great right? Now imagine living your life constantly feeling that way.

Nobody can live well like that. I very much believe that the purpose of a human life is to grow spiritually, but what our wisest teachers are telling us is that we can’t do that without also providing for the basic needs of our bodies. The Buddha himself only achieved enlightenment after choosing to end his practice of extreme fasting.

I don’t think I’m saying anything that isn’t obvious. But I do think that so many of us, myself included, try to ignore the hunger of others. We might see the man begging for change on the corner, but most of us walk right on by. We probably don’t even know about our neighbors who might struggle to feed their families, or our friends and colleagues scratching out a living on food stamps. We don’t want to. It’s too uncomfortable.

This needs to change. I think all of us need to start taking collective responsibility to ensure that all of us are fed. 

Why? From a spiritual perspective: because when one person suffers, everyone suffers. From a practical perspective: because we can. We have the resources to make sure that no one needs to go hungry.

There is a wonderful program in India called amma canteens. An amma canteen is an eatery that serves fresh, good quality food and charges only pennies for a meal. They can do this because they’re government subsidized, so they can afford to sell their food at a loss. They are extremely popular with both the poor and the middle class, as the food is excellent as well as cheap. A network of over 300 amma canteens serves hundreds of thousands of meals every day.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about this program, and it seems to be an effective way to feed lots of people. A similar program could be very helpful in America, or anywhere else in the world. While the particulars might be different, the underlying value is one that can be implemented anywhere: that it is a priority of the community and the government that everyone be fed.

There is more than enough money, in public and private hands, to make this happen. A country that spends over half a trillion dollars on defense can afford to make sure its people have enough to eat. What else is more important?

For those of us who aren’t in a direct position to change public policy, we can help too. We can ask ourselves each morning “how can I feed people?”, and set that as an intention for our day. We can give our love and attention and compassion to those around us, but we can also bring that love into the physical world by cooking our friends dinner, and giving ten dollars to the guy begging on the corner. We can donate to food banks and write our congressmen and just keep putting the intention out there, over and over again: how can I feed people? 

The opportunities to help always appear.

My point isn’t that it’s the responsibility of any one person to solve hunger. Rather, it can be something that all of us choose to become aware of, and becoming aware of, to help with. It’s not an overwhelming burden if we all share it. It’s just a return to the fundamentals of living in real community, as our ancestors once did, and a chance to practice Christ’s most basic teaching: love your neighbor as yourself.

Ian Cooper