Feed a 'Silent Guest' this Thanksgiving

Set a place for a silent guest at your Thanksgiving table this year

This Thanksgiving put an extra chair at your table and make room for a "silent guest." That guest can be one of the world's 805 million hungry people.

The "silent guest" tradition goes back to the autumn of 1947 when families across America rallied to feed the hungry in Europe. It had been two years since World War II had ended. But the peace still had to be won.

Hunger ravaged the war-torn countries. Drought was causing food shortages. There was no way they could rebuild under such stress. As former Army Chief and Secretary of State of George Marshall said, "hunger and insecurity are the worst enemies of peace."

People across the country pitched in. They filled carloads of the Friendship Train with food to send overseas. Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) held a nationwide food drive for Thanksgiving. Hundreds of thousands of children in post-war Austria received school lunches because of food collected by CRS (then known as War Relief Services).

On Thanksgiving Day, families mailed donations equal to the cost of feeding a "silent guest" at their holiday meal. The silent guest plan was created by an aspiring actress turned activist named Iris Gabriel. She approached Massachusetts Gov. Robert Bradford with the plan. He announced it to the nation. Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. of Maryland became an honorary co-chairman for the Silent Guest committee.

The silent guest donations bought care packages for the hungry in Europe. The plan was so successful it was continued through Christmas. The government followed the public's lead and passed an interim food aid package to help Austria, France and Italy survive the winter.

The feeding of the hungry was essentially the first phase of the famous Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe. This was one of greatest peacemaking initiatives in world history. It was made possible because people cared, even about those thousands of miles away.

This Thanksgiving there are people starving because of wars in the Middle East and Africa. The tragic conflicts in Iraq and Syria have no end in sight. There are millions of people, forced from their homes, who will only survive if the world provides humanitarian aid.

In fact, there are more refugees now than any time since World War II. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), the largest hunger relief organization, has been forced to reduce rations for war victims because of low funding. WFP depends on voluntary donations from the public and governments. The world needs to step up its response to make sure rations are restored.

The hunger is most detrimental to children. Malnutrition causes lasting physical and mental damage or death in small children. Hunger can stunt the growth and learning abilities of school age children. That is why CRS, with funding from the U.S. McGovern-Dole program, is providing school meals for children in Mali, an African country torn by conflict.

Catholic Relief Services is also feeding refugees in Iraq who have fled the onslaught of ISIS. They are aiding disaster victims in the Philippines and those who have fled massive fighting in the Central African Republic. CRS, for example, provides seeds to farmers to help them start growing crops again.

Here at home, a new report from Feeding America shows that many working families still need food assistance. Some of these families are forced into a "heat or eat" crisis, where they have to choose between buying food or paying for utilities.

Hungry families depend on food banks and federal support programs like food stamps and school lunches. Your local food bank needs donations in order to provide this safety net for poor families.

You can do your part today, setting a place for a silent guest at your Thanksgiving table and using it as a reminder to begin gathering food to help your local food bank, the UN World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children and other groups fighting hunger.

There is enough food on the planet for everyone. No one should go hungry, whether near or far.

William Lambers is the author of "Ending World Hunger." He is a blogger with the Huffington Post. Twitter: @williamlambers.

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