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When It Comes to Ending Hunger, All Eyes Are upon Houston

Moez El-Shohdi, second from the right, gathered with colleagues to discuss the growth and challenges of raising food banks within 32 nations present at this week's conference.
Moez El-Shohdi, second from the right, gathered with colleagues to discuss the growth and challenges of raising food banks within 32 nations present at this week's conference.

Every other month, Moez El-Shohdi travels through the greater Middle East. Ranging from Morocco to Pakistan, El-Shohdi dots the landscape, visiting models he helped perfect through his work in Cairo. He examines the factory sprung in Riyadh. He tours the facilities in Damascus. He makes sure that his model, churning through Cairo for seven straight years, has spread through the communities he and his compatriots have eyed, through the shanties and townships specifically targeted by El-Shohdi and his business partners.

But as El-Shohdi, speaking on Wednesday at the Houston Food Bank, relates, his business relates not to predatory lending, or to religious doctrine, or to any of the lives other well-off businessmen may claim on similar itineraries. El-Shohdi, rather, is focused on making sure that the spare meals of Amman and Tunis and Beirut are heading not to a local landfill but to the plates of those who most need them.

"The goal, at least in Egypt, is to eliminate hunger by 2020," El-Shohdi, the CEO of the Egypt Food Bank, relates. He's talking about the rewards and returns on opening Egypt's first food bank seven years ago -- about the 17.2 million meals provided every month and the $720 million his organization raises annually.

"And it can't be just one way, though," he says. "It has to be development and awareness and feeding and also investment. It can't be just one."

It can be just one angle, and it can't be just one method. Which is why El-Shohdi is here, in Houston, surrounding himself with nationals from thirty-odd other nations milling around the Houston Food Bank. He's sitting, talking about the localized challenges he's faced. His colleagues mill around, Hindi floating past Russian, pushing aside the Spanish fading as a pair of Uruguayans walk away.

Over 200 internationals have gathered in Houston for the week, participating in the H-E-B/Global Food Network (GFN) Food Bank Leadership Institute. Founded seven years ago in San Antonio, the GFN opted to move the conference to Houston this year, tapping into the city's ethnic mix and international prominence.

"We had a love affair with San Antonio, but look at Houston -- 20 ethnic groups of over 5,000 people," Jeff Klein, GFN's president and CEO, said. "We're the only global organization that deals with food banking, and if we want to expand, and if we want to invite as much of this community as we can, Houston makes more sense."

And so, after six years of setting the conference up in San Antonio, Klein and his GFN colleagues, based in Chicago, uprooted for the Houston Food Bank. A half-dozen years after the first international leadership conference, and decades after the first food banks cropped up in America, Houston has suddenly become home to the most extensive networking and educational opportunities for anyone invested in ending international food waste.   Indeed, while the Houston bank is pushing into its fourth decade of existence -- with heady new conference rooms, wide-paneled views of its food stores and enough multimedia goodies that you find yourself thanking their corporate sponsors out loud -- many of those attending this week's conference had only just landed their first food banks.

"These opportunities to see the different realities, the different laws -- all the different ways of food delivery, which is the main goal -- is why we're here," says Eduardo Lira, COO of Chile's first food bank, founded in Santiago in late 2010. "Our [food bank] president lobbied for seven years just to get this first food bank built, and so we're here to learn as much as we can about how to build up ours."

Valeria Peña, the communications and marketing manager at the Chilean food bank, had no trouble praising the programs she'd seen in her first visit to the GFN conference. "The food bank model in Chile is very, very unknown," she said. "Seeing these programs -- seeing this building! -- gives us hope that in 30 years, we can be like the U.S."

Between presentations on local laws, anecdotes on food maintenance and public outreach, the weeklong gathering is easily the largest international conference of its kind. It's ample opportunity for reassurance and connection. It's ample space for someone to convey the growth and realities of the food-banking industry.

Andrew Gray, a UK filmmaker, listens to the conference attendees for his forthcoming documentary on food banks.
Andrew Gray, a UK filmmaker, listens to the conference attendees for his forthcoming documentary on food banks.

"Even in the UK, this idea of food banking isn't so well-known -- and there's really nothing of this scale," said Andrew Gray, a British filmmaker currently working on a documentary on the concept of redirecting food "waste" to those remaining hungry. As Gray relates, and as he shares the news articles that spurred the film project that's brought him to Houston, arable lands currently produce enough food to feed the seven billion of us swarming about.

"And I read these statistics, and I just thought they were rubbish," Gray continued. "But then I came back to them a little bit later, and you just, you can't realize how much is truly wasted. So that's why I'm trying to make my documentary as global as possible. And it's fascinating here, seeing how many different models have worked."

Those models -- rural and urban, smooth and stilted -- are what these representatives have flocked to Houston to discuss. Those from Sierra Leone and Nicaragua, from Australia and Lebanon, are swapping best-practices methods of taking the waste that continues to pile up in their landfills and placing it instead on the plates of those whose governments are powerless to feed all of their citizens.

"The rate of the return that we have out here, that food banks generate, is just amazing," said Houston Food Bank President and CEO Brian Greene. "We're looking at $6 generated for every $1 we spend. And this is Houston: This is a city that loves to make things happen. But this isn't one of those 'Oh, come learn from the U.S.!' outings. I anticipated learning, but not at this level. And we're going to take what we learn and we're going to make this food bank even better going forward."

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