Month October 2014

Globs of Spinach and Cross-eyed Discus Throwers


Understanding the Hunger Space: Part 1
By Rick McNary

My introduction to global hunger occurred when I was ten years old sitting at the dinner table in a drafty old farmhouse in rural Kansas. Mom dropped a gooey glob spinach on my plate and my olfactory senses conspired with my gag reflexes and sent me into convulsions. I tried to get my dog- whom I had seen eat the vilest of carrion- to eat it, but he refused and threatened to turn me into the S.P.C.A.

Mom, sensing my disgust, put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, you know, there are starving children in Africa who would love to have that food. Now eat it.”

I knew better than to ask her for their addresses. I would have happily mailed them the glob. It would have looked the same after two months by sea transport.

Unknowingly, Mom introduced me to the typical messaging about hunger;

  1. It’s a big problem over there
  2. You should feel guilty because you have food and some people don’t
  3. There’s not a darn thing you can do about it

My next brush with hunger came years later when our church decided to have a food drive. The holidays were coming and we needed to assuage our guilt for eating too much turkey and fighting over Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls on Black Friday. Hundreds of pounds of non-perishables were collected and given to those less fortunate. We were doing our part and it felt good; at least it felt good for those with the capacity to give.

Then came Sally Struthers on T.V. holding an emaciated child begging for me to send money. I was grateful when remote controls came and I could click away from the images of people starving over there. Oh, sure, I was a good guy and did just enough to alleviate my guilt and sponsored a few children, but the problem was still over there.

Then I got slapped in the face, or, rather, hugged around the neck with the reality of hunger when I stepped my foot over the boarder of the U.S. and went to Nicaragua. It was the first time I ever saw a starving child. I was over there yet, suddenly, it was right here and she had a name.

A beautifully filthy 5-year-old girl stumbled out of a hut made of mud, rusted metal, cardboard and black plastic. She started begging, then held her arms out for me to pick her up. Her tummy was distended, her dark hair turning red because of malnutrition, and her hands were filthy. She giggled and played with my mustache. I pursed my lips because I could smell where her hands had been and I didn’t want to take any parasites home with me. She then hugged my neck and whispered in my ear, “Feed me, I’m starving.”

I was totally wrecked by a 5-year-old; my world has not been the same since. I made a vow that I would spend the rest of my life doing what I could to feed hungry children.

Therefore, I launched a one-man crusade to end global hunger; it was exhausting. I learned quickly that passion and competence don’t always go together. I had passion but many of my first efforts were very misdirected. I meant to do good; I just didn’t understand the difference between doing good and creating good. Doing good is often defined by the doer; creating good is defined by the receiver. I’ll explain that in detail later, but while the motivation to do good is admirable, it must be coupled with thoughtful deliberation and engagement. The goal is to create good.

I was a man on fire. I lit fires under others, but I also burned a few bridges and left some charred remains. My Dad would have said I was like a cross-eyed discuss thrower; you never know where they’re going, but you darn sure want to pay attention!

I launched myself into the hunger space like the circus guy that explodes out of the cannon. I’m still sailing but a bit more efficiently now.

However, I didn’t know it was called the hunger-space when I first began. The hunger-space is that intersection of businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, schools, civic organizations, faith-based groups and individuals that are actively engaged in ending hunger.

Understanding the hunger space will make you and/or your group much more efficient. The goal- at the end of the day- is to move the numbers and reduce hunger. Just doing good and feeding people won’t get the job done; we have to be strategic and we have to collaborate.

As Dr. June Henton, founder of Universities Fighting World Hunger says, “Hope is not a plan. We need a plan.”

To create a plan, we need to understand the cause, effect and solutions to ending hunger. We need to understand the hunger-space. In my next blog, I will talk about the two most important concepts in the hunger space. Stay tuned.


Rick McNary is the Author of Hunger Bites: Bite Size Stories of Inspiration & vice president of public and private partnerships for Outreach, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Board for the Alliance to End Hunger in Washington, D.C., and is a long-time friend of Universities Fighting World Hunger. Follow him at or connect via email at