No society has fulfilled its democratic promise if people go hungry... If some go without food they have surely been deprived of all power. The existence of hunger belies the existence of democracy.

Acceptance speech – Frances Moore-Lappé / Institute for Food and Development Policy


Beyond Charity Toward Common Interests

In 1975, Joseph Collins and I were huddled in cramped offices over a supermarket just outside New York City. Writing furiously day and night, we were taking on the biggest challenge in our lives, but we didn’t know where it would take us.

Soon, our intense collaboration became Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, a question-and-answer book taking on the most common misconceptions about hunger and its solutions. By 1977, Food First — the book — had become the platform statement of Food First — the organization known officially as the Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Our drive to launch a new education-for-action center sprang from several observations. On the positive side, we saw hundreds of organizations popping up in the United States and in Europe — on university campuses, among the churches, in local communities — all focusing on the “world hunger crisis.” We saw highly motivated, tireless activism. But because it was not backed by an analysis of the underlying causes of hunger, much of this energy was dissipated or even counterproductive.

Cutting through the simplistic and scary clichés about hunger, we had arrived at some surprising findings:

    • No country in the world is a hopeless basket case. Even countries many people think of as impossibly overcrowded have the resources necessary for people to free themselves from hunger.


    • Increasing a nation’s food production may not help the hungry. Food production can increase while at the same time more people go hungry.


    • Foreign aid often hurts rather than helps the hungry. But in a multitude of other ways we can help.


  • The poor in the third world are neither a burden to us nor a threat to our interests. Unlikely as it may seem, the interests of the vast majority of people in the industrial world have much in common with those of the hungry in the third world.

We have sought, therefore, not just to change people’s minds about particular, “bad” policies. We’ve tried to affect the very unspoken assumptions we all carry with us about the way the world works and about our own interests in it. With food and hunger as our entry point, Food First’s goal is to change world views.

At Food First, we work to provide a framework within which our individual acts take on greater meaning because we can see how they contribute to a larger movement for change. People often disparage their efforts as mere “drops in the bucket.” Yet drops fill up a bucket quite fast ? as long as there is a bucket! It is that bucket the Institute seeks to help construct ? a more widely shared, evolving understanding of how we got to where we are and how together we can generate practical solutions reflecting our deepest values.

To begin with, at Food First we seek to show that we humans can’t blame nature for hunger. Not only has food production kept ahead of population growth but the world faces price-depressing gluts of food. Still too often people believe hunger is caused when a simple equation is out of balance – too little food for too many people. But that view collapses once it’s admitted that the greatest number of hungry people in the third world today live where food production has been increasing steadily. In just two Green Revolution successes – India and Pakistan – more children died of hunger last year than in all Sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 countries combined.

In challenging the U.S. government’s foreign policy, we explain to our fellow citizens a sad irony: their own tax dollars are going to shore up elite-controlled structures from Central America to the Philippines and beyond, that block changes which might allow an advancement for the majority, advancement essential to our own security.

We bring this message to life, showing the real people struggling for a decent way of life in the third world, most recently through the life and words of a courageous Honduran peasant woman named Elvia Alvarado. Our latest book, “Don’t Be Afraid Gringo”, is Elvia’s story. She tells how she has endured arrest and torture for organizing her neighbors to take land that is rightfully theirs under a 1970s agrarian reform law. And Elvia tells the American people about their government’s aid to Honduras:

We Hondurans are dying of hunger. We’re not interested in fighting our neighbors. The national security they [our government leaders] are protecting is that of their own big stomachs. They are protecting the fat checks that come pouring in from the United States.

And to be released in January, our book Betraying the National Interest takes the next step. It shows how a militarized foreign aid policy predicated on fear of change in the third world not only undercuts the interests of the majority who are poor there – and whose future depends on profound change – but works against the interests of the vast majority of Americans as well.

There’s nothing mystical about this insight. It is quite practical in today’s interdependent world of globe spanning corporate and financial institutions. The declining real earnings of U.S. workers reflect their dwindling bargaining power as they are pitted against workers in the third world who – denied rights to organize – must work for a fraction of what’s considered a living wage here. Moreover, at least a third of U.S. exports go to the third world, but customers for the additional trade we so desperately need will be missing as long as the poor abroad lack the income even to buy what their own land produces.

Of course, our most basic common interest is in peace. So we seek to show our fellow citizens that it’s an illusion to imagine there can be a less volatile world without an end to hunger. It takes violence to keep people hungry. The poor do not go on passively watching loved ones die needlessly of hunger. They resist. “I stand for peace,” a Central American peasant told me,”but not peace with hunger.” Unless the universal right to the resources necessary to sustain life is acknowledged, hunger and violence will continue to mount worldwide.

A critique of the economic and political roots of hunger and a framework with which to understand our common interests in change – both are necessary. But much more is needed. To overcome despair, we must ask: What can work? Where are people finding answers?

The temptation is to seek idealized models that can be transferred from one society to another. This is dangerous. When flaws come to light, despair is only reinforced. Instead of models we seek lessons – both positive and negative – from a wide variety of societies.

Working as part of the movement to end U.S. hostility toward Nicaragua, Food First does more than counter distortions by the U.S. government; it analyzes economic experiments underway in Nicaragua which might be useful lessons for any agrarian society involved in structural change.

While Washington portrays the Nicaraguan government as totalitarian, increasingly controlling the economy from the top, our book Nicaragua What Difference Could a Revolution Make reveals a highly pragmatic approach, encouraging private initiative. The keystone of the Nicaraguan agrarian reform was not to set a ceiling on the number of acres a farmer could own. Rather its guiding principle has been to attach to ownership an obligation – an obligation to produce. “Idle lands to working hands” was the early slogan of the reform. Its impact? Under the Somoza dictatorship, small farmers – the producers of basic foods – had access to only three percent of the farm land; today they control more than 40 percent.

At Food First, we believe education and action are not two separate kinds of work. We learn in order to act effectively; and in acting, we learn. We never describe ourselves as a “thinktank” but rather as a center of “education for action.” Our educational tools all urge appropriate channels for involvement. Our curricula for primary and secondary school students introduce even the youngest pupil to the challenge of becoming an informed and inquisitive “agent of change.”

Fortunately, the network of organizations to which we are allied is growing ? more and more citizen organizations are taking up the many interrelated issues consistent with our framework of analysis. Millions of citizens in the industrial countries are going beyond paternalistic charity in supporting efforts of the poor in the third world. People who before might have been involved only in collecting money for relief are now setting up “sister city” ties or establishing trade networks in which third world producers retain a fair share of the proceeds from the sales of their products; or they are actively involved in human rights organizations bringing world attention to the repressive abuses those working for change too often suffer.

Our forthcoming book “Making the Links” will highlight these and many other creative initiatives through which citizens in the industrial world are learning to see themselves not as benefactors but as allies of their counterparts in the third world.

We do not seek to create a Food First movement per se. There are so many organizations and movements already organizing communities for specific, concrete changes. We want to get better and better at serving those organizations and movements. We aim to provide the tools – used by the classroom teacher, the consumer organizer, the journalist, or the church leader –  that can reshape peoples’ world views, enabling them better to effect change within their families, schools, workplaces, churches, citizen movements, political parties, and governments.

The Food First message is not a pleading, “Oh, please come help share in the burden of saving the world” Rather, our message is a positive invitation – an invitation to participate in generating action that is visionary yet realistic. Recognizing the many formidable obstacles confronting us, Food First believes that by grounding action in our deepest values – freedom and democracy – human beings can build new forms of political and economic life more life-giving than any existing today.

And because we know that the Right Livelihood Award and all of those who have been honored by it share this hope, I am proud to be here to celebrate our common work.

Frances Moore Lapp_
Small Planet Institute
25 Mt. Auburn St., Ste. 203
Cambridge, MA 02138
Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy
398 60th Street
Oakland, CA 94618