I spoke at an event marking the celebration of World Food Day a few weeks ago. Although the name might conjure images of an international food bazaar in your local market or cafeteria, it’s actually an occasion to take account of how well (or poorly) the global community is meeting the great challenge of feeding the world’s growing human population. Unfortunately, the news is quite grim.

This year’s theme was “Food Prices: From Crisis to Stability.” In case you haven’t noticed, the price of food has gone through the roof. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index, the cost of food reached an all-time record high in 2011, rising nearly 90% from 2006-2011. This dramatic rise in food prices has caused a major reversal of progress made toward eliminating undernourishment and malnutrition worldwide. One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is to cut in half (during the period 1990-2015) the number of people who suffer from hunger worldwide. In the 1990’s, some progress was made; the global percentage of people who were undernourished declined from about 20% to 16%. But even that progress is somewhat misleading. The absolute number of undernourished people stayed constant at about 800 million during that period of time; the percentage of people undernourished fell only because the world’s overall population grew. In the last few years, matters have grown even worse. Last year, the number of undernourished people in the world rose to one billion.

The fact that the world is now home to seven billion people has drawn a lot of attention lately, and caused many people to wonder whether there will be enough food to go around. But the truth is that the rise in the sheer number of people to feed is not the leading cause of hunger worldwide. The factors contributing to the recent spike in undernourishment and food insecurity are complex, but three stand out as particularly important: the effects of climate change, rising energy prices, and shifting patterns of food consumption.

Climate change is causing shifts in traditional weather patterns. These changes sometimes have immediate, disastrous effects (e.g., flooding); the UN estimates that climate-related disasters displaced over thirty-eight million people in 2010, undermining their livelihoods and access to adequate nutrition. More gradual, long-term shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns have also had an adverse impact on crop production and the livelihoods of many small-scale farmers and farming communities worldwide.

Rising energy prices affect food prices in several ways. Higher energy prices translate into higher costs for producers (impacting prices for fertilizers, fuel for farm machinery, etc.), and for the transportation of farm goods to markets. As energy prices rise, bio-fuels become more competitive in terms of cost vs. traditional fossil fuels, causing commodities that might have been eaten as food to be redirected toward fuel production (e.g., corn used to produce ethanol). The end result is a further decline in the supply of food and even higher food prices.

Growing global demand for meat is a third factor driving up the cost of food. Although the earth can provide adequately for the nutritional needs of seven billion people and perhaps even a few billion more, it cannot support that many people on a meat-rich diet. Americans consume an enormous amount of meat; a growing number of people worldwide (especially in China and India) are embracing the American-style diet and consuming more meat. It can take as much as six or seven pounds of feed (six or seven pounds of corn, for example) to produce a single pound of meat. When people eat more meat, food prices rise as livestock consume a growing percentage of the food produced worldwide.

What is to be done? Food insecurity is a complicated challenge that can only be addressed by concerted social action and sound public policy. Catholic Social Thought can be mined for helpful insights into the proper shape of those policies. That’s a post for another time, but for now I would like to focus on what families and individuals can do to promote food security.

The USCCB is sponsoring a very worthwhile initiative called First Fridays for Food Security. Participants are asked to fast on the first Friday of every month, by eating only as much as can be purchased with what is allotted for a family of your size by the USDA Modified Thrifty Food Plan (which is used as the basis for food stamps, or SNAP). For an individual person, this amounts to only about $5.50 for an entire day’s food budget (you can find a document that helps you make additional calculations here). The USCCB also publishes a simple, but good educational pamphlet online every month that addresses an issue of food security. This month’s theme is “Hunger in the Land of Plenty” which addresses the problem of “food deserts.” A table prayer is also included. This month’s issue and back issues can be found on the program’s website.

The USCCB’s First Friday fast is quite challenging, and a little complicated to carry out (How much do I charge myself for two slices of bread in my peanut butter sandwich? Or for the peanut butter?). A simpler, but nevertheless effective alternative to USCCB’s proposed fast (that I am trying to follow) is to resolve to eat simply, to eat less, and to abstain from meat for one day every week.

Fasting is a simple way to be mindful of the one billion people worldwide who are undernourished, but it is also a very concrete way to address food insecurity. As I explained above, to the extent that each of us uses energy and eats meat, we are contributing to higher food prices and to food insecurity. So fasting can be a small but real way to make our own personal contribution to reverse the recent rise in food insecurity and move us closer to the day when no one is denied access to good food and adequate nutrition.