DAYTON, Ohio _ My deputy just returned from South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, all areas I had visited a year and a half ago to assess their humanitarian needs.
He tells of a group of children in Swaziland. Some of their parents had died from AIDS; others couldn't afford the $60 per year it costs for school.
One of the people traveling with him began teaching the children a few songs. Then they started dancing and singing in their native language. When the humanitarian workers translated the song, the words were, "Everyone has AIDS, We are all dying of AIDS."
I have traveled to many places where the children are poor and sick, where their parents are unable to provide for them, and where people die every day from hunger and disease. But it is always hardest to talk with people whose spirits have been crushed and who are without hope.
I can just picture the irony of the scene: Children dancing and singing, but having no hope for the future.
It's my job to put into action the United States' commitment to alleviate hunger and build hope in the world. It is a wonderful job. It's never a stretch for me to tell Europeans, Africans or others that Americans really care. When they find out about people in need and are told how they can help, they do.
It is a painfully harsh reality that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is destroying decades of development. This is true especially in Africa where 25 million people are living with the disease. In many countries in southern Africa, one-third of the adults are HIV-positive.
One out of every three people has a death sentence and will probably die between the ages of 15 and 40. AIDS kills people in the prime of their lives.
There are more than 7 million farmers in Africa who have died from AIDS in the past 20 years, many before they were able to teach their children how to survive. These AIDS orphans are struggling to stay alive.
Two parents died in Zimbabwe and their family now consists of their 7-year-old and 12-year-old sons. The 7-year-old is smart (although he now has no chance to attend school) and cooks for both of them. They receive a little cornmeal provided by the U.S. Food For Peace program and distributed by the U.N.'s World Food Program through a small charity.
They are trying to grow corn in the dirt around their tiny shack. And they are trying to get on with their lives.
Recently, Congress approved funding for President George W. Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine successfully fought for an additional $300 million in the final bill to help more people. For this year, the president has proposed spending $2.8 billion to fight this killer and tuberculosis and malaria.
As a demonstration of our generosity and leadership, in 2002 and 2003, the United States gave international aid contributions greater than those of all other donor governments combined.
Part of the president's plan is to care for 10 million HIV-infected individuals and AIDS orphans. One of the best ways that we can care for these orphans and others is to make sure they have enough to eat.
Good nutrition is essential to help people with HIV live longer and more productive lives. People with AIDS require more energy from food than healthy people. For many of the rural poor who have no access to health care, food is the best medication they will ever get.
In many African countries, there are no hospitals, doctors or nurses to distribute medicines. But thanks to the World Food Program, charities and faith-based groups, we can distribute food to even the most isolated of locations. Food is the only real lifeline that many of those suffering with AIDS have.
Another connection between food and AIDS is that desperate people do desperate things. If women and girls had other things to sell besides their bodies, AIDS would not spread so fast. If men and boys, such as the child soldiers I met recently in the Congo, would not use rape as a means of terror, AIDS would not spread so fast.
Food can be used as a tool in preventing and responding to the AIDS pandemic. In many cases, it is the best weapon we have in the war against AIDS.
Whenever my staff and I and travel to the developing world, I always ask people I meet about AIDS. They have opened my eyes to the horrors of this epidemic. When both of your parents have died of AIDS, you will go hungry. When you are then told that you, too, will die of the same thing, your hunger is swallowed by hopelessness.
For many of these AIDS orphans in southern Africa and elsewhere, the only hope that they have is a regular bag of food that says "gift of the people of the United States." Americans should be proud that our government is working to alleviate hunger and to build hope, often one meal at a time.
Tony P. Hall, who represented the Dayton area in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years, is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' food and agriculture organizations.
Cox News Service