A new initiative from the World Food Programme lets diners donate the cost of their favourite food to a good cause.
Now diners can donate on the spot to a good cause
Looking down at a plate of top-grade sushi, what do you see?
1: A delicious bit of self-indulgence that inevitably comes with a heavy environmental footprint?
2: A healthy but expensive meal whose high price you should really have stashed away in savings?
3: A large host of hungry young faces that could all be fed for the price of your small portion - one that scarcely fills you up?
If your answer is number three, there's a chance you might just have been influenced by a new project from the World Food Programme already, one of a new breed that uses social networking to tap into wealthy diners' guilt and turn it towards a good cause.
Called Wefeedback, the project encourages the wealthy to dig deep for free school meals worldwide. Its centrepiece is a Facebook app (with iPhone and Windows Phone apps soon to follow) that allows you to sit in a restaurant and calculate exactly how many hungry children you could feed with the price of what you're eating. For those who use none of these, Wefeedback also includes a calculator on their own website, www.wefeedback.org.
The results make standard food-centred worries about your body shape or bank balance look more than a little shallow. Wefeedback's calculator will tell you, for example, that a small Dh75 serving of sushi would provide meals for more than 80 children. While that Dh75 is of course providing people with wages and therefore ultimately helping other people to eat too, the thought that the lives of 80 hungry kids could be improved for the price of something many of us buy so casually is sobering stuff.
The efficient manufacture of guilt, however, is only the very beginning point for Wefeedback. While it calculates the potential good your food spending could do in the developing world (at a rough estimate of 25 US cents, Dh0.92, per meal per child), the programme's calculator also invites you to, well, feed back (there's a clue in the project's name). With a few clicks, you can donate the cost of a food item to vulnerable young people across the world, making sure they get as much from your meal as you did.
The figures backing up the programme are certainly stark - an estimated 925 million people worldwide are currently not getting enough food to eat. While reducing this figure is vital, Wefeedback intends to do far more than help stave off the immediate needs of the desperate. In a bid to improve conditions more widely, it focuses on school canteens, providing 22 million meals a year in 60 countries. This has a far more significant effect than simple disaster and poverty relief. Wefeedback doesn't just feed kids, it also tries to create opportunities that make it possible for them to climb out of the conditions that have landed them in poverty in the first place.
The rationale goes like this. For people living below the poverty line, hunger doesn't just make their lives hard day to day, it focuses them so much on mere survival that they are rarely in a position to take the initiative and improve their conditions. When a family is struggling just to afford enough food to live on, sending children to school rather than out to work is often a choice that is not available. Providing school meals to regular school attendees can make all the difference, making it economically viable for over-stretched parents to allow for their children's education for the first time. Simply keeping children within the school system for longer increases kids' chances of bettering themselves in the future.
Free school meals can also boost the number of girls attending schools. While in many places education for girls is not seen as a top priority, providing them with free meals gives parents an extra incentive to make sure they go. To make the idea of school seem especially attractive, Wefeedback also gives some children take-home rations for families as a whole. The effect this has is potentially massive - when free school meals are provided, school enrolments can rise by anything up to 28 per cent.
A proper education means that the children are less likely to stay in the poverty trap that has caught their parents, and Wefeedback's activities also boost local economies in other ways. The programme makes a point of buying local food where possible, giving trade in their target communities a little boost as well. The knock-on effect of all these small steps towards helping the poor can make a real difference to everyone in the community. According to Wefeedback's own figures, feeding malnourished children can in the long run boost a country's gross domestic product by more than 11 per cent, meaning that the direct positive impact of free school meals on families is also felt across the society as a whole.
While Wefeedback's projects are vital, regular donors to charity will recognise that the goals are much the same as other longstanding aid programmes. What makes Wefeedback especially significant, however, is that it shows a new online direction for charities that are increasingly taking the bulk of their fundraising on to the internet and into social networking sites. Not only will users soon be able to assess their meals on Smartphones, Wefeedback also encourages users to tweet what they find on Twitter.
The project's technological savvy is very much part of a new wave -many sites are now creating models that are based on social networking. These include the US-based GiveForward, which is democratising charity by providing a space for individuals to make appeals online. Designed to fill the gaping holes in US health insurance coverage, GiveForward lets hard-up people with serious health problems solicit for help from strangers online, letting them create unique donation pages to connect with the charitable.
Likewise, the site Pifworld now provides an online platform for small-scale charities. Separated into such categories as wildlife and human rights, the site allows donors to access projects that normally wouldn't have the resources to reach a wide audience. Pifworld also acts as a charitable version of Facebook, letting users create profiles as "players", to send gift credits and create funding and awareness-raising teams. With new breeds of fundraising like this, the sight of volunteers shaking donation tins in public places as you walk down the street is going to look increasingly old-fashioned.
There's nothing newfangled about the feelings Wefeedback taps into, however - a twinge of guilt about food hits everyone sometimes. Whether its feeling bad about eating dessert on a day you've skipped going to the gym, or wondering if it's really OK to splurge on an expensive meal out when you should be saving for a pension, most people occasionally look at their plates and feel a little greedy. While many of us might not welcome an additional reason to feel guilty about our diet, at least Wefeedback's calculator taps into something deeper and more humane than mere vanity about our body shape.
And with the opportunity it offers people to turn their guilt into real changes for children worldwide, engaging with Wefeedback should have the knock-on effect of making you feel very good indeed.
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