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On Thanksgiving 1947, Chicago fought hunger in Europe. In 2021, let’s fight world hunger.

Forty-three countries are facing severe food crises. We need both the public and the government to take action.

Chicago was a stop on the Friendship Train that collected food donations to feed the hungry in war-torn Europe. It was a chance for Chicago residents to contribute to world peace by fighting hunger.
Chicago was a stop on the Friendship Train that collected food donations to feed the hungry in war-torn Europe. It was a chance for Chicago residents to contribute to world peace by fighting hunger.
Photo courtesy of Chicago and North Western Historical Society

What were people in Chicago doing in 1947 during the Thanksgiving holiday? They were fighting world hunger.

It began when The Friendship Train arrived at the Northwestern Train Station on Nov. 14. This train was started by the American people in response to a major hunger crisis in Europe. While Europeans were still reeling from the devastation of World War II, a severe drought had struck that summer, leading to food shortages.

President Harry Truman spoke to the nation several times about the urgency to feed the hungry. Americans responded with the Friendship Train, which ran from coast to coast collecting donations of food for Europe.

Chicago proclaimed Nov. 14 as Friendship Train Day, which kicked off a collection of food donations from residents. Gov. Dwight Green stated at the Friendship Train Day ceremony, “In approximately a month’s time, the idea of Friendship Train as a demonstration of American good will has been carried to fulfillment.”

According to Friendship Train historian Dorothy Scheele, Chicago donors added at least 21 more boxcars of food. There was also lots of cash donated, which would lead to more food for Europe. Chicago and Illinois were major contributors to the train. A week later, another part of the Friendship Train rolled into Chicago on its way to the East Coast.

With the American people leading the way on feeding the hungry with the Friendship Train, Congress was encouraged to pass an interim food aid bill for Europe in December.

Empty plates for ‘silent guests’

They were other hunger fighting initiatives ongoing too. The Thanksgiving week food drive by Catholic Relief Services collected donations at churches nationwide. This food helped feed Europe and other areas, too.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1947, families in Chicago and elsewhere set aside empty plates at their table, representing one of the world’s hungry. A donation was then made to CARE to feed their “silent guest.” CARE food packages were sent by the thousands to Europe thanks to the “silent guest” plan.

These actions by the public and government bolstered Europe’s recovery from the war and allowed the 1948 Marshall Plan to succeed. They remind us of the power of American generosity and the true meaning of Thanksgiving: “Giving Thanks by Giving.” It was this food that gave Europe the hope and strength to rebuild.

It’s also inspiration for America as global hunger has now reached epic proportions. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) just issued a warning that 43 countries are facing severe hunger emergencies.

Take action, and put pressure on government

The most desperate countries are Yemen and Ethiopia, where war has led to famine conditions. In Afghanistan, conflict, instability, drought and COVID-19 have combined to put 24 million people into acute hunger. There is an unprecedented hunger crisis for Afghanistan as winter approaches.

In Madagascar, drought caused by climate changed has destroyed farming. The WFP says families in Madagascar are “resorting to survival measures such as eating locusts, wild leaves and cactus leaves which are usually fed to cattle.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo there are 27 million people — one-quarter of DRC’s population — facing crisis or emergency levels of hunger. But yet we can save them by funding school meals for children and other aid programs.

There are so many countries in need. At Thanksgiving, we can choose to do something about it, as Americans did in 1947. We need both the public and the government involved.

While we may not have a Friendship Train running, we can each donate to charities fighting hunger. There are many great ones including WFP, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, World Vision, Norwegian Refugee Council, Edesia and UNICEF.

At the Thanksgiving meal, we can donate to feed “silent guests.” By playing the Freerice app trivia game with our families, we can raise donations for WFP. The University of Illinois and other colleges are even holding a Thanksgiving Freerice challenge.

We can also inspire elected officials in Washington, D.C. to take action. The Thanksgiving holiday was founded in part on the persistence of Sarah Josepha Hale writing to President Abraham Lincoln, encouraging him to create the holiday. We can write letters to Congress urging them to increase global food aid.

Thanksgiving has produced some of the great chapters in the story of America’s generosity. This Thanksgiving we can do the same, by taking action to feed the world’s hungry.

William Lambers is an author who partnered with the U.N. World Food Program on the book “Ending World Hunger.” Follow him on Twitter @williamlambers