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When Santa, Rudolph, and Eisenhower Took on Global Hunger

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Christmas is coming and all eyes are on the sky for Rudolph, his fellow reindeer and, of course, Santa Claus. Back in 1953 Santa’s sled was extra heavy, with hundreds of thousands of food packages for the hungry worldwide.

That year President Dwight Eisenhower started “Operation Reindeer.” He wanted to build goodwill with Christmas food packages to fight global hunger. Everyone got involved. Charities, the U.S. military, and also the public took part in either buying the CARE packages or making the deliveries.

Germany, Japan, Austria, Korea, and Italy were some of the countries that received the Christmas food gifts. All of these nations had recently been scarred by war and were trying to overcome the resulting poverty.

“Operation Reindeer” was an opening chapter in the U.S. Food for Peace era. What better way to build a peaceful world than by ensuring all could have the food and nutrition they needed to survive and develop?

When Eisenhower took office, the United States had a growing surplus of food. Worldwide, though, there were hungry people. It made sense to send this food abroad to the needy.

The food would mean something more too. It would connect Americans to people overseas. Food would form a friendship. Food would unite. Food would be a bridge to peace.

Someone who received an Operation Reindeer package in Germany said, “It reminds us that we have not been forgotten.” One German wrote, “Tell Americans that they have admirers in Germany.”

In Austria, a governor said that “his country is very grateful and the only reason that recovery has been so miraculous has been due to U.S. aid and friendship.” Another remarked, “This food package program makes the man on the street in Austria appreciate the friendship of the U.S.”

After Operation Reindeer ended, one of the officials was asked, “Why isn’t such a program wider in scope?” Observers of Operation Reindeer felt that more publicity about the program would have further enhanced this public diplomacy outreach.

Also, it would highlight the needs in these countries. In Italy, Mr. Newton Leonard, sent by the U.S. to observe the aid, wrote, “We wished that the packages weighed a hundred pounds for we realized how quickly the contents of the packages would be consumed by the hungry and ill children and adults.” Leonard recommended a Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program with emphasis on child feeding, including school meals.

Operation Reindeer was only a quick relief program and it was discontinued after 1954 in favor of longer-lasting projects. What was needed was steady aid and this is what evolved in the coming years. One reporter remarked that they fired Santa for Christmas but instead gave him a year-round job.

What followed in Italy was Food for Peace, with school feeding for millions. Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Peru, India and others also received school meals during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

Food for Peace programs, whether school meals or other projects, helped turn many countries from recovery mode to self-sufficiency. They are now donors to hunger-fighting programs around the globe.

Today, though, there are still many people around the world suffering from hunger. We still need the Food for Peace spirit that was so strong during the immediate years after World War II.

There are nearly one billion people worldwide who suffer from hunger. With that kind of suffering and deprivation, peace and development cannot take hold. In Afghanistan, for instance, over seven million people are estimated to suffer from hunger and many millions more are on the brink of this despair. These statistics were tabulated before the recent drought struck that country, putting millions of others at risk.

Food is the best road to peace in that country for without it people cannot work, cannot grow, cannot learn and cannot thrive. It’s the same story in Sudan, Ivory Coast, Niger, Yemen, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries mired in instability and poverty. If we feed their hungry and build their agricultural capacity, it’s our best hope of building stable and prosperous countries, and having them as lasting friends and allies of the United States.

Food is what unites all peoples across the globe, for all people and nations need it to survive and develop. There is no better gift we can give this Christmas or year round than food for the world’s hungry.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.