As governing bodies and international charities respond to the unprecedented global food crisis, international child development charity Compassion UK is witnessing the pivotal but unreported role churches in the world's poorest communities play in combatting the crisis.
Currently, 345 million people face acute, or crisis-level, food insecurity – up from 276 million at the start of the calendar year. Children are amongst the worst affected. In June this year, UNICEF looked at 15 developing countries and found that every minute, another child will suffer from severe wasting making them highly vulnerable to life-threatening diseases and risking their long-term development.
Compassion's church partners are seeing first-hand the desperate coping mechanisms used to secure food, including families selling their assets and possessions. Some are even seeing families eating planting seeds out of desperation. But they are also mobilising in the face of the need. In Uganda alone by the end of August 2022, over 48,000 Compassion-assisted children will each receive 56 kilograms of posho (a cornmeal-based food) through the church and more than 28 kilograms of beans that will last them a month.
Sidney Muisyo, Chief Programme Officer of Compassion says, "What makes the church a good partner is that the church is actually part of the community.
"They are truly experiencing everything the community is experiencing. So, the level of understanding of who is in need and what level of need – the church has got all that.
"The church has the ability to mobilise the community in ways that few other organisations can do. They have the structure. They have the names. They know the context of every family, every child, in ways that even governments don't.
"And so, the church can respond appropriately and urgently to meet the unique needs of each family and child in the programme. And that is unique to Compassion."
Eli in Uganda recently experienced first-hand the church's support during his family's current crisis. This is his story:
Eli woke to the crunch of dry sticks breaking—the front gate of his family's compound. His heart pounded. He knew who had come. And he knew why. He knew there was no preventing the robbery. But there was a chance he could save his life. He ran.
Eli dashed out of his little hut and jumped over the fence as the raiders made their way in. There was no electricity where he lived, no source of light. Eli stumbled in the pitch black and fell behind a bush. He spent the night there, listening to men laughing as they stole everything he owned.
When the dawn broke, Eli crept back to his home to see if he could salvage any of his possessions—but he was left with nothing. The raiders took 57 chickens, clothes, food, and other household items.
The most significant loss for Eli, however, was his savings of $158 from his business.
Eli's daughter Alice, who is five years old, receives support from the local Compassion project. Since joining the programme, her life has changed dramatically. With the support of the programme and the church, Eli used some of the money to start a business.
"The shop was growing and helping the family, but the enemy came and took everything. Now my business has collapsed," says Eli.
Before the raid, Eli was able to sustain his family. When his family was attacked, everything changed. The hunger his family suffers cuts across the land.
In a small village in Northern Uganda, Eli and his neighbours experience sleepless nights. They worry about the food they will eat and their shrinking harvests. They worry about unpredictable and damaging weather. They worry about the provision of water. They worry about increasing inflation, and the many challenges life presents them in their personal lives.
On that night, in April 2022, Eli's worries were realised.
"Prices have shot up. I need to spend at least $5.30 on my family, but I cannot afford it. I am the breadwinner here, and everyone expects me to provide, but everything is expensive," says Eli, "Sometimes we eat once a day."
The church had supported Eli through the start of his business. As he saw it flourish, they continued to walk alongside him and his family when they lost everything. Eli received food after the raid, as in previous times when calamity struck or hunger swept over his land. He received 20kg of flour and 13kg of beans. This food was a great relief.
Official reports put inflation in Uganda at 6.2%. Still, prices in the local market have increased by 80% on average and by 100% or more for some items.
Nangatunyo used to have a bustling Tuesday market but not anymore. Many have lost their businesses to raiders and have abandoned the market stalls because they have nothing to sell. Others sit with their piles of goods to sell and return home with them because people have no money to buy.
Eli has begun growing some vegetables at home. But because of the unfavourable climate, he can only produce enough to eat. There is nothing left for him to sell to meet other needs.
The church's support and the local Compassion project have brought Eli and his family back from the brink of despair. As Eli hoes his fields, he is thinking of plans to make and save some money so that he can give his children a more secure future.
Compassion's 8,500 local church partners across 27 countries are often the "first responders" to the crisis. Their training enables them to identify malnutrition and hunger in their communities and take immediate action. In the short term this includes delivering essential emergency food packs such as rice, beans, flour, and oil, or sending cash transfers so families can purchase supplies and cover basic expenses.
But they also have a long-term commitment to their communities, empowering families like Eli's to create household gardens and start small sale food production and providing fertiliser and livestock. Other initiatives include improved drought-resistant seeds, planting nutrition-rich low labour demand crops, training farmers on climate-smart agriculture practices and systemised water conservation. Churches are also supporting parents to diversifying their livelihoods, facilitating support groups and connections with local markets and resources to enable them to have a sustainable income.
Palamanga Ouali, Compassion vice president of Africa region says, "Apart from preaching the gospel, I have seen the church mobilise local resources even in the mist of the lockdowns to cater for the needy and vulnerable in the church and community.
"The church knows where the vulnerable are in the communities and knows the needs of the people. Our hope is that the church, with the right intervention and resources, will continue to put smiles on the faces of those they serve while giving the vulnerable the opportunity to hope and thrive again."
To find out more about Compassion's response to the global food crisis, or to donate to their food crisis appeal, visit compassionuk.org/food-crisis or follow @CompassionUK on social media.