Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had an idea for Thanksgiving, 1947. Every family could set aside an extra chair and plate at the Thanksgiving table. This extra setting would represent a “silent guest,” one of the hungry people in Europe.
In 1947 Europe was suffering food shortages, just two years after World War II. It was hard enough for Europe to rebuild from the war. But drought had also struck Europe that summer, ruining farming.
There could be no reconstruction or peace if Europeans were starving. As Secretary of State George Marshall said on Oct. 1 of that year, “Food is the very basis of all reconstruction. Hunger and insecurity are the worst enemies of peace.” Americans were not going to sit idly by and let people starve.
A “silent guest” committee was formed before Thanksgiving to collect donations to send care packages to Europe. Massachusetts Gov. Robert Bradford and activist Iris Gabriel kicked off the “silent guest” campaign.
Eleanor Roosevelt, in her New Day newspaper column, encouraged Americans to donate to feed “silent guests.” Eleanor’s idea of setting the extra chair and plate at the table “would remind us of our great good fortune in being able not only to eat ourselves, but to share what we have with others.”
Americans made thousands of “silent guest” donations at Thanksgiving in 1947. Every bit of food sent to Europe represented more than sustenance. It also represented hope and friendship. There was hope for a better life. There was hope for peace if the enemy of hunger could be defeated.
Roosevelt, in her pre-Thanksgiving column, also was encouraged by the Friendship Train. This special train was another food drive carried out by the American people to help feed Europe. Roosevelt wrote that the Friendship Train was “something to dramatize to people all over the country not only the need, but the willingness of our people to respond to that need.”
That is the power of holding a hunger relief event. It does far more than collect donations, but it raises awareness of a crisis that is often silent. Hunger so rarely gets news headlines.
Now today we have the worst hunger crisis unfolding since that World War II era. The UN World Food Program says there are about 49 nations with some level of famine threatening within their borders. That is how massive the global hunger emergency has become.
Yet funding is not enough to keep up with the growing hunger emergencies. We need people to step forward on Thanksgiving and donate to feed “silent guests” in Somalia, Yemen and many other nations that need emergency food aid. This food is especially urgent for malnourished children who could become stunted or die.
On this Thanksgiving you could follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea of putting out an extra plate and chair for a “silent guest.”
You could donate to the UN World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, Edesia, Mary’s Meals or other charities fighting hunger. You could also write letters to your representatives about increasing global food aid.
This Thanksgiving take in “silent guests” and give them food and hope.
William Lambers is an author who partnered with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) on the book “Ending World Hunger.” He lives in Cincinnati.