The world braces for a food catastrophe. Here's what you can do.
Lessons from a female writer during China's devastating famine in the early 1900s.
Experts predict a global food crisis as the world staggers out of the pandemic and war tips “a fragile world towards mass hunger.”1 Nearly 250 million people are on the brink of famine.
What do you we do with a number like that? Feel small and feeble, for one thing. And as crisis layers over crisis, become overwhelmed.
Not daunted yet? Then the war in Ukraine, mass shootings in the States, turbulent global economies causing unrest, food riots in Sri Lanka, inflation putting pressure on families still reeling from COVID-19—not to mention whatever will happen next week—the reality and stream of bad news can immobilize us.
With our near-omniscient awareness of human events on all our feeds, do you ever find yourself asking, “What can I do about my seeming powerlessness amidst all the bad news?”
I humbly suggest we all do what good people have always done: what we can.
A story from the 1920s that can help us imagine our response today
A few years ago2 as I scoured microfiche to prepare to write a stage play about a Canadian artist who fell in love with a poor preacher in Toronto, I was stopped mid-scroll.
Quick context: Years before she wrote a letter that was read around the world, Goforth was a promising artist from a wealthy family. She fell in love with a poor preacher named Jonathan. They had a love story for the ages. The two ended up in China in Christian ministry. While there, among many other mis/adventures, they were caught up in a terrible famine that threatened to kill millions, and did.
The article Goforth wrote has convinced me that I need not be swallowed by the enormity of whatever bad news we face. But, in my smallness, must do what I can.
A letter that saved countless lives
Working in China in 1920 during one of the worst famines the country had ever seen, Rosalind Goforth was on a sickbed on the mountain of Jigong Shan because of a terrible bout of sprue (chronic dysentery).
Most of her friends and colleagues were doing what they could to help people affected by the famine which afflicted much of central China. Those in the know were predicting some 60 million people could die. The toll on human life was unthinkable.
Weak and in terrible health (she lost some 40 lbs during the sickness) word spread through the village that Rosalind Goforth had received money in the mail from supporters at home. The villagers surrounded the house, throwing rocks, and demanding the money for food in their hungry desperation.
Threatened by her sickness and the mob, Mrs. Goforth got off her bed, dressed, and faced the angry crowd, demanding calm. She promised them that the next day she would spend the money so the village could eat. Appeased, the mob dispersed and that evening Goforth got on her knees.4 She could help one village for one meal. What about the countless others down the mountain pushed to the brink?
Years later, reflecting on the time, her daughter Mary Goforth Moyan recounted what agony of soul her mother had been in over reports of the suffering in the famine. Families were throwing their children into the river so they would drown and no longer suffer from their hunger. People were surviving by eating leaves, grass, and mud.
What else could she do but pray? Mary Goforth Moynan recalled that:
It was a terrible situation. She had all these facts in her mind from letters. Well, she prayed, “Oh God, what can I do to help?” And the answer came like a voice, “Use your pen. Use your pen.” [She] sat down at her desk and she wrote an article. And it was just one page. She called it “The SOS of China’s Millions.” And it was translated into at least ten different languages. It hit the front pages of the biggest newspapers in the world. Now who but God could do this? He answered her prayer. She really wanted to help. And this is what God did.
The desperate prayer, answered so quietly, so simply, led to the letter which was read around the world. It was a honest plea from one woman for help in any way that people could give—people who otherwise would not have known about the situation.
At the end of the letter Goforth gives a direct and desperate appeal: “Reader, whoever you are, will you not help us, and send to the extent of really denying yourself something?”
And all that winter she had stacks of mail come to her bedside, and in each one was a check. And she was able to give checks for five hundred dollars, a thousand dollars. And in the end… it would come to…close to the value of a million dollars that came through her hands alone. There’s no way of estimating how much money came in response to that appeal from the countries of the world, but it was wonderful how [it] did. It was tremendous the help that came to China at that time.
What is most striking about this story to me is that it was out of her desperation and her state of being overwhelmed that Rosalind Goforth was brought to the place of impossibility which brought her humbly to her knees in prayer.
The money that helped to save millions of lives arrived in China through a practical act, with the tools in her hand: a pen and a postage stamp.
Cool story, Andrew, so what?
What does a fascinating story about a missionary in the 1920s have to do about now? Good Q. We can look to the past, get an endorphin rush via the positive anecdote, and go on with our busy lives.
But we can also stop and learn from stories like this and allow them to transmit lessons that can inform our lives today. Goforth’s story serves as a framework and example through which we can look at crises today to consider the contemporary individual’s response.
Rosalind Goforth did what she could. And others followed suit.
Not every life was spared. There was unthinkable human suffering still. But there was also unexpected, transformational relief for millions of people. Her example challenges me to take my attention off the fact that there’s not much I can do, and through the humble lens of faith and a practical acknowledgement of what’s in my hand perceive what I can do and then do it.
Oh God, what can I do to help?
It’s on the wings of such prayers that relief comes. Food for the hungry. Letters for the page. Relief for real people we’ll never even see.
If you want to move beyond an inspirational story from the past, here are a few practical suggestions for us today.
3 things we can do now as the world braces for a food catastrophe
Economists, politicians and reporters are sounding the alarm and have much to say. Canada has a role to play in food production but also does not remain unscathed (not due to supply, but due to access).
But, like me, you may not have levers of global power in your hand or really spend much time in the logistics of the global supply chain, or the nuance of sustainable development.
So here’s a list of practical steps for the average person:
1. Take care of your house first.
This may be a strange place to start, but it’s pragmatic. We’re not good at thinking clearly if we have a perceived fear, and in this media climate, fear is the lede. Remember the run on toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic?
It’s worth being prepared. With what we’ve learned about the supply chain in the last two years, being prepared for disruption is important.
Having key essentials in your pantry will help you keep a level head, be ready for disruption and enable you to think of others when disruption comes. Here’s a practical guide to being prepared that’s easy to do.
2. Consume responsibly.
Did you know that 1/3 of all food produced globally is wasted or lost? That’s about 1.3 billion tonnes. In Canada that costs us $31 billion each year.5 It hurts to read that.
Saving the food you don’t eat as leftovers rather than throwing it in the garbage isn’t going to put food on the plate of a child facing a food shortage. But being more attentive, resourceful and mindful of consumption will ultimately minimize excess. If we all had reasonable restraint in our consumption, there’d be global impact.
3. Give to charity that aligns with your values and can make a real impact.
We all have our favourite charities and views of what relief and development should look like. I, personally, am grateful for the opportunity to work with6and give monthly to Compassion Canada, supporting their work to help kids and communities most vulnerable when crises occur.
What do I like about Compassion?
Local experts and members of the community deliver the program in a holistic way, and know the needs of the community where the program is delivered.
It’s responsive, present in crisis and there for the long term. That’s why Compassion’s frontline partners were able to deliver millions of food and hygiene packs to families and communities in the pandemic when people needed it most, because they were present and on the ground.
The local support will be there if and when the next crisis hits because the experts who deliver program live in the community.
But there’s so many other ways and places to give. The above suggestion is just one way I personally like to give. Another great place to start is on the World Food Programme’s website where you can download the Share the Meal app, give and learn more.
Rosalind Goforth’s SOS was graciously provided by the fine people at Wheaton. The quoted passages and anecdotal information come from an interview with Mary Goforth Moynan also available via Wheaton’s archives.
See my play What We Didn’t Know for a dramatization for select moments of this critical night in Goforth’s life.
Full disclosure: I’m employed by the organization. But this isn’t an article commissioned by it. These words emerge from my concern for what we’re seeing on the horizon. I’m grateful, however, that I can confidently recommend the integrity and impact of Compassion’s work.