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Congressman's Fast Challenges Indifference to World's Hunger

Rep. Tony Hall says 110 million tons of food wasted in US fields. INTERVIEW

A WHILE back, Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio tore open a new small box of Wheaties cereal for breakfast. Out fell one lone flake. Otherwise, the box was empty.

Today, that single crumb of Wheaties seems an appropriate symbol for Representative Hall's lonely fight to end hunger in the poorest corners of America and the world.

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Complaining that Congress cares little about hunger, Hall on Friday begins the 12th day of a water-only fast to protest widespread indifference to the world's 1 billion undernourished people.

What prompted his fast, during which he has already shed more than 16 pounds, was a decision by the House of Representatives to disband the Select Committee on Hunger. Until April 1, Hall was the committee's chairman.

"We have 35,000 people worldwide who are dying every day from hunger and hunger-related diseases," Hall noted in an interview at his office on Capitol Hill.

"In our country, we've got 27 million people on food stamps.... And we have another 20 million Americans who run out of food at some time or another during the month," he said.

Such statistics prompt Hall, a born-again Christian, to complain that America is turning a blind eye to one of the world's greatest moral problems. To Hall, hunger ranks up there with jobs and defense as a top priority.

Hall doesn't expect miracles from his protest. But he hopes that his fast will catch the attention of the White House, Congress, and even the United Nations.

His ultimate goal: That no one in America will ever go to bed hungry. Americans should make their communities "hunger free," he says. Hall is striving for that goal in his hometown, Dayton, Ohio, where his father was once mayor.

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Some critics suggest Hall's crusade against hunger reflects a kind of naive idealism that they say has motivated him throughout his 15-year congressional career. He admits that some of his colleagues in Congress have been "aloof" since he began his fast.

"They don't understand why I would step out of my comfort zone," he says.

Hall's idealism showed up as early as the 1960s, when he was an English teacher for the Peace Corps in rural Thailand. He was further sensitized to poverty when he visited a camp of 50,000 starving people in Ethiopia in 1984.

But Hall, a Presbyterian, says his great awakening came when he rediscovered the Bible and realized the great emphasis that Jesus and the prophets put on helping one's fellow man.

Hall explains: "As I began to read the Scriptures, in both the Old and the New Testaments ... they talk about the hungry and the poor. There are over 2,500 verses in the Scriptures that deal with this issue, with hunger." Indeed, feeding the hungry is mentioned more often than any theme in the Bible except idolatry, Hall says.

The congressman says that to him, one of the most inspiring Bible stories is found in St. Matthew, Chapter 25, where Jesus explains that as one feeds, clothes, and ministers "unto one of the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Such help for the poor doesn't mean more federal spending, Hall insists, even though a typical food-stamp recipient who gets average benefits of $68.13 a month, can run out of food within two or three weeks.

Public awareness and community action can solve the problem without laying out more government dollars, he says.

One workable idea, in his view, is gleaning. In Hall's Ohio district, gleaning has supplied tons of food for the needy.

Corn, strawberries, melons, apples, and other crops - left after the harvest - are gathered on farms by volunteers and distributed through food banks in Dayton.

Across the country, Hall estimates, "110 million tons of food go to waste.... It's free ... we don't need government involvement."

General Mills Inc., the maker of Wheaties, also demonstrated the kind of private action that Hall likes. He wrote a humorous letter about his one-flake box of cereal, and company officials promptly asked what they could do to make amends.

The congressman suggested donating food to the poor.

And General Mills did. Hall says two tractor-trailer truckloads of assorted cereals soon arrived at food banks in Dayton. This time, the boxes were full.

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