11/07/2012 08:12 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

Talking to Your Kids About Hunger

Zanmi Agrikol

Kids are naturally inclined to want to help. But when it comes to something as massive as world hunger, it's hard for young people to believe they can make a difference -- especially when adults don't seem able to solve the problem! Here are five ways you can get your child involved.

"I don't think it's enough," said my 11-year-old son with alarm. For his Grade Six social studies project, Derrick had been asked to track a story in the news, and present it to the class in a visually engaging way.

Derrick had picked the food crisis in West Africa. He was creating a display to show the difference between lunch in Canada and lunch in Niger or Mali these days. Derrick had read that the drought in those countries is so severe that it's common for children to spend all day digging for roots to boil and eat. But while he himself had poked around our dying garden for nearly an hour, Derrick couldn't find more than a small, withered bunch of roots for his display.

Derrick's "not enough" comment was painfully ironic. So many of the stories at World Vision these days are of families who can't find enough of the right food, no matter how hard or long they work. Since the rains stopped coming in West Africa and parents lost their harvests, children are doing whatever they must to keep themselves alive.

"Why are kids still dying?"

Derrick had read and seen similar stories as he tracked news developments. And they'd hit him pretty hard. He noted that governments -- including Canada's -- are donating funds for nutrition programs, and world bodies like the UN and G20 meet regularly to consider solutions.

"So why are kids still dying?" he asked, as he started to assemble his display at the kitchen table.

I'll admit this was a tough discussion, even for a mom who works at an international aid and development agency. We live in a world that currently produces more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, yet almost a billion people don't eat well enough to be healthy. The food security experts at World Vision have noted that in the face of declining food stocks, we can only expect this situation to get worse.

Yet I was looking into the eyes of a young person with enough interest in the issue to have chosen it for a class assignment. It was a critical moment. If I couldn't offer hope, how would Derrick approach the issue the next time it came up for discussion? Would he want to engage, or simply switch off?

Tips for parents

I'm happy to say I did find some actions that made sense to Derrick, and even his seven-year-old brother. We still have robust discussions about world hunger, but I'm managing to gently steer my boys away from the paralyzing enormity of the problem -- and toward ways they can help.

Here are five ways your kids can help:

1. Donate food to your local food bank. The simple act of moving a can from one place to another helps even young children understand that there is enough to go around; we just need to organize it differently.

2. Reduce your food waste. Ask kids to log how much food you throw away, and add up the money you save by having leftover meals. Invite your children to sit with you while you go online, to donate the savings to the food bank or an overseas aid agency. Even just three or four dollars a week helps children make the connection.

3. Email your MP. If your kids have questions about world hunger like Derrick did, invite them to type them out, or dictate to you. Tell them they have a right to ask the MP how he or she plans to respond. This helps children understand that they have a say in how Canada cares for people around the world.

4. Share the good news stories, too! When Canada shows leadership on food security, or a country like Brazil is successful in reducing hunger within its borders, tell your kids about it. Seeing the cause-and-effect of good decisions can inspire children with passion to get involved.

5. Invite your child to pick a Holiday gift for their teacher that will also help a family in need. Through World Vision Gifts, your son or daughter can choose a gift of emergency food, fruit trees or seeds and tools to a family struggling to get back on track in the food crisis.

2010 Global Hunger Index