Free to Serve

April 26, 2016

Stephen, Volunteer, Foods Resource Bank

On March 29, I was honored to be among the 250 people gathered at the Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa for “Women and Agriculture: The Road to Global Security”. Organized by the Foods Resource Bank, Oxfam America, and the World Food Prize Foundation, the event celebrated the critical leadership of women and the importance of ensuring human rights and eliminating hunger in order to achieve global peace and security.

Courtesy: Alex Morse, Food Resource Bank

Courtesy: Alex Morse, Food Resource Bank

Iowa’s Senator Joni Ernst shared a particularly powerful source of inspiration. While in college, she had the opportunity, through a government exchange program, to work alongside peasant farmers on a collective farm in then communist Ukraine. After a full day of manual labor, there were no tractors available on the collective farm, the Ukrainians and Americans would eat supper together. These conversations often included questions about agriculture in the United States, but the Ukrainians were even more interested in what it was like to be free.

What is it like to be free?

Halfway around the world, indigenous farmers in the highlands of Guatemala were asking the same question. Facing extreme inequality in access to land and resources, their children are frequently hungry. Indigenous families are still recovering from the 1980s genocide against the Mayan people, and women face particular challenges coping with entrenched patterns of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and gender-based violence. When facing these challenges, what is it like to be free?

Olga Tumax, an indigenous woman, smallholder farmer and community organizer, has spent much of the past forty years living out her answer.

Though not raised on a farm, Olga learned agriculture to provide a more stable source of nutritious food for her children as well as a source of family income under her control. Olga improves her family’s diet by growing at least twenty different crops, which also reduces the risk of hunger by reducing the risk of a harvest failure. To cope with increasingly erratic rainfall, Olga is experimenting with cisterns to catch and store water from the occasional downpours. As someone with a strong ethic of service, Olga shares her knowledge of farming with other women, who have also come together to plant trees on deforested hillsides and to construct greenhouses that improve the tomato harvest enough to generate a marketable surplus. The income from tomatoes buys education and healthcare, but also increases independence and outward dignity for these women. A stable, independent source of income has enabled several to leave situations of domestic violence, and to become more active in the civic and political life of their communities. Three women now serve as elected officials representing Olga’s district of Guatemala.

So, what is it like to be free?

I find it helpful to reflect on the four freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt described at the opening of the Second World War: freedom from want and fear, and freedom of belief and expression. On March 29, we learned from Olga Tumax how tightly bound these freedoms really are. Freedom from the fear of violence, war and terrorism cannot happen without freedom from hunger. And in a democratic society, the freedom from want and fear leads naturally towards freedom of belief and expression. We see this in the newfound community service and civic engagement among the women of Guatemala. We see it in the countless hours that Foods Resource Bank’s network of farmers and congregations spend raising funds in support of groups such as hers. And we see in the bipartisan political leadership that helps people around the world lift themselves out of poverty through programs like USAID’s “Feed the Future” initiative. Freedom from hunger and violence is also a call to come to the aid of others.

What is it like to be free? To be free is to serve.

Stephen is an Iowa native and a volunteer with Foods Resource Bank