By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service
The Rev. Ray Buchanan had spent years working to banish hunger in the United States when an experience in Sierra Leone made him re-think his focus.
In 1997, during the height of the African country’s civil war, he visited with a number of United Methodist pastors in the city of Bo who told him “they wore their clerical collars when they begged in the streets because people would be more generous.”
Returning home “in a self-righteous fit,” Buchanan raised $65,000 in six weeks, enough to provide rice for every pastor’s family in Sierra Leone for a year.
That experience in Africa helped propel Buchanan to found Stop Hunger Now in 1998. During its 10-year existence, the Raleigh, N.C.-based organization has provided more than $44 million in direct aid to more than 60 countries, including more than 5 million meals for the poor.
For 2008, Stop Hunger Now has set a goal to package 5.5 million meals. On Aug. 23, its “University Million Meal Event” hopes to bring together 4,000 volunteers from nine colleges and universities to assemble 1 million meals in one day.
“We have a vision of ending hunger in our lifetime,” the 61-year-old pastor said. “In order to do that, it’s not enough to feed the hungry. We’ve got to inspire, motivate and educate the whole world community to be involved.”
Personal approach to hunger
Buchanan, a Texas native, former U.S. Marine and clergy member of the United Methodist Virginia Annual Conference, long ago took a personal approach to the problem of hunger.
In 1979, he and the Rev. Ken Horne co-founded the Society of St. Andrew and moved their families into what he called “an intentional community of covenant lifestyles” on a 58-acre farm in the mountains of Virginia.
A $15,000 grant from the United Methodist Board of Discipleship helped them get the community started. “They realized, as we did, that you’ll never deal with hunger unless you deal with the issue of lifestyles,” Buchanan explained.
They combined the living of a simple life “considerably under the poverty level” — growing their own food and using solar power — with a mission to educate college students about hunger and lifestyles and integrated their message into the community through local United Methodist congregations.
“We saw firsthand how much good food was being thrown away,” he recalled.
Although the farm community disbanded after three and a half years, that knowledge about food waste led to the society’s very successful “potato project,” which was supported with funding from the Virginia Annual Conference.
“I can’t say enough about the faithfulness of the church to make that happen,” Buchanan said.
He and Horne continued to expand the work of the Society of St. Andrew but, at a certain point, his attention was drawn to the international scene.
“It was obvious to me that the need internationally was so much greater than the need in the United States,” Buchanan said. “The hunger here is real, but we have such enormous numbers of safety nets.”
After the experience in Sierra Leone, he remembered a potential major donor, John Hewitt, co-founder of Jackson Hewitt and currently founder and CEO of Liberty Tax Service, who had once contacted the Society of St. Andrew about feeding famine victims. Hewitt helped Buchanan realize his dream of being able to travel to a crisis area, assess the situation and quickly deliver food to the people who need it.
Stop Hunger Now was born. “I wanted to do a half million dollars worth of hunger relief in the first year,” he said, noting that the organization actually dispensed $2.9 million worth of aid in 18 countries that year.
Today, Stop Hunger Now accomplishes its work through dozens of partner organizations across the world. “We don’t have international staff,” he said. “We seek out the best partners you can find in the areas where we work.”
Although the mission of the first eight years focused on crisis relief related to wars or natural disasters, Buchanan knew that such circumstances were only a small percentage of the hunger problem. He wanted to address the systemic causes of hunger and needed a way to get volunteers involved.
A solution presented itself after the Asian tsunami in late 2004 when Stop Hunger Now received a call from Kids Against Hunger, a Minneapolis-based group that had food for tsunami victims but needed transportation.
The food was similar to a dehydrated soup mix used by Stop Hunger Now in the past, but it was more like a “hearty casserole,” he said, and was not manufactured in a factory but assembled by volunteers.
When Buchanan paid a visit to Minneapolis and saw young children, the elderly and the developmentally disabled working to assemble the meals, he knew he was on to something and received permission to use the formula for Stop Hunger Now.
“What we have come up with is a way to involve folks hands-on into making a difference in international hunger,” he said.
Stop Hunger Now distributes most of these meals through schools around the world. “
All the experts agree the best way to end hunger in our lifetime — and that’s possible — is through school feeding programs,” Buchanan said.
The meal packaging operation is run under the Operation Sharehouse Program. Each six-serving package includes rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix with 21 vitamins and minerals.
The easily transportable food packages can keep for five years without refrigeration and cost only 20 cents a meal to create.
Assembling 1 million meals
During the million meal event on Aug. 23, students at North Carolina State University will be joined on their campus by participants from Meredith College, Peace College, Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College to make up a team of 1,500 packagers.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill packing site will draw 1,500 volunteers from that school, Duke University and North Carolina Central University.
At East Carolina University, 750 volunteers are already lined up, and coordinators expect to bring in more participants from surrounding colleges. Liberty Tax Service is the title sponsor of the million meal event.
Several of the schools have taken part in meal packaging in the past. Last August, North Carolina State put together more than 300,000 meals in one day.
In January, Duke and North Carolina Central volunteers worked with the Durham Rotary Club to assemble more than 90,000 meals.
Stop Hunger Now has maintained ties with United Methodist annual conferences and agencies, such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief and its parent, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
More information on the University Million Meals Event or Stop Hunger now is available online at www.stophungernow.org or by calling 888-501-8440.