The “Invisible Guest” World Food Campaign of the 1920s Should Be a Model for Us Today

The holiday season is a time of giving to loved ones. It can also be a time of giving to those unseen or invisible: the world’s hungry. In the winter of 1920-21, with the scars of World War I still fresh, helping an invisible guest became a centerpiece of holiday celebrations.
The First World War left destruction far beyond the battlefields of Europe. Food supplies were devastated, and recovery would not come easily. The American Relief Administration, led by Herbert Hoover, provided food aid to Europe’s hungry long after the guns fell silent following the 1918 Armistice.
In 1920, because Europe’s food production had not rebounded enough for them to feed themselves, Hoover assembled a group of charities, including the Red Cross and church groups, to form the European Relief Council.
The council issued an appeal to Americans to help the many starving children in war-torn Europe. Hoover asked everyone to feed an “invisible guest” at Christmas. A series of events were set up to raise funds, starting with the Invisible Guest dinners.
Hoover and Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded American forces during the war, hosted the first such dinner in New York City. A candle was placed at the center of the table signifying the invisible guest, one of the hungry children in Europe. The food served was the same as those in the child feeding canteens in Europe. Funds were collected at the first dinner, and it was a major success.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. attended the first Invisible Guest event and helped push the fundraising to $3 million for the night. The Invisible Guest campaign did not stay in New York City; similar events took place across the country. In Northern Kentucky, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, an Invisible Guest club was formed with a fee of $10 to save the life of a child until the next harvest.
The acts of charity went far beyond the Invisible Guest events. The motion picture industry was young at that time, but it pulled together a major fundraiser for European relief. A “Motion Picture Day” was set up to collect donations. Movie stars appeared at theaters to encourage participation. Special performances were held. The New York Times reported that millions of dollars were raised.
A world away, but close at heart, were Invisible Guest children in Austria, Poland and other nations who could get meals each day because of this generosity.
World War I and its aftermath are long behind us now. But conflict and hunger are not. Neither is the generous spirit that typifies America. In a sense, this year’s holidays are no different from those of 1920. There are still children in war and disaster zones who need help. We need to remember our own invisible guests this holiday.
Worldwide, 870 million people suffer from hunger. In Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes as the war between rebels and the Assad government continues. This war has destroyed people’s livelihoods and forced many others into other countries for refuge. They are at risk of hunger and cold this winter. They will need food aid to survive. War goes far beyond the Middle East; long standing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan continue. In the Sahel of Africa, hundreds of thousand have been displaced by fighting in Mali. We know about the conflict in Afghanistan, but how many know about the tremendous hunger that exists there?
While world wars may be a thing of the past, smaller conflicts still rage. And all of this violence produces food shortages and hunger. The basis of life that most of us take for granted disappears when the shooting starts.
As in 1920, we can do something about this tragedy of hunger. If everyone kept an invisible guest in mind this holiday we could feed millions of starving people. Humanitarian agencies such as the World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF, Save the Children, Church World Service, or your local food bank depend on the support of the public. With that support they can help an invisible guest this holiday season.

William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).
December, 2012