Growing up, I heard about the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl every Lent and vaguely knew that the money we put in the cardboard box went to feed the hungry. It was not until recently that I learned more in-depth about the programs that CRS sponsors and about the larger mission behind the Rice Bowl.

Unlike what I previously thought, the CRS Rice Bowl program is about more than throwing surplus change into a box and then going about the rest of the day as usual. If properly entered into, it provides an opportunity for  solidarity with people around the world.

On the CRS website and in the Rice Bowl app, the organization offers “Stories of Hope” where we can learn about the people around the world who are directly benefiting from the programs that the Rice Bowl money is going to help (this year, they are focusing on Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Gaza and Sierra Leone). We can also learn about the conditions they live in and the problems facing developing countries.

On Ash Wednesday, Monica Rodriguez, who is from Guatemala, came to the Archdiocese of Washington Pastoral Center to talk about one of those programs that she manages, called SEGAMIL, which teaches young mothers in Guatemala how to raise healthy children, grow nutritious food in small gardens and manage a healthy diet.

Rodriguez explained that chronic malnutrition is a big problem among children in Guatemala, and it stunts both physical and mental development. When children are always hungry, they do not perform well in school, so when they become adults they haven’t developed the skills needed to gain a well paying job. This causes communities to be stuck in a cycle of poverty.

A drought in Guatemala has made it difficult to produce food at home, and the men in the family often have to go far away to work on coffee plantations to make a very meager wage. Sometimes, children are also recruited to go do that work because their small fingers are useful for harvesting the coffee beans.

The SEGAMIL program trains women about proper nutrition and sanitation and empowers them to engage in income generating activities such as growing and selling nutritious foods on their own. They teach the women about crop and animal production and how to harvest honey from bees. CRS also provides the women with a financial education, in order to build women’s self esteem and empower them to be less dependent on men.

Norma, one of the women who has been trained through this program, said, “Before I thought I was worthless; now I know my value.” She now serves as a mentor to other mothers in her community, teaching them what she learned about how to prevent malnutrition, treat common illnesses and improve hygiene.

CRS also provides recipes for simple meals from the countries that the money is going to benefit, so we can experience the type of food that the people in those countries eat. Since the meals are generally made with inexpensive ingredients, such as rice and beans, we can use the money that we would have spent on more expensive meals to donate to the Rice Bowl program. 

Donating just one dollar a day can provide a month of food for a family, two years of seed for a farmer, or an emergency kit for a refugee. In addition, 25 percent of the proceeds from the Rice Bowl go toward alleviating hunger and poverty in our local archdiocese.

By educating ourselves about issues that our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing around the world and choosing to be in solidarity with them, even if only during one simple meal, we can come closer to living out the reality that “we are one single human family," as Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si.  In the processwe can also practically provide assistance to help feed and educate those in need. 

Click here to donate to CRS Rice Bowl.