From seven o'clock on the evening of March 8 to the same time the following day, there are going to be an awful lot of British kids going hungry. They will be doing it out of choice.
The 24 Hour Famine, run by the Christian organisation World Vision, has captured the imaginations of school groups and young people all over the country. Last year, a quarter of a million teenagers took part, helping to raise Pounds 150,000 out of a total of Pounds 1.6 million for aid projects throughout the developing world. If the past 10 years is anything to go by, this year should be no exception.
The event works like any other sponsored activity, except that it requires rather more will-power than swimming 20 lengths. How schools organise the fast is up to them. Some make arrangements for the pupils to camp out in the school and create an event around it, while others, because of the difficulties of making such arrangements, encourage individuals to do the fast at home.
While the altruism and dedication of the fasters is impressive, participating schools don't go away completely empty-bellied. World Vision produces a 24 Hour Famine Schools Resource Pack, written by teachers for teachers. Study cards designed for key stages 3 and 4 personal and social education, geography and religious education, contain in-depth political, social and economic background of three highlighted countries along with testimonies of young people. The PSE study card deals with street children of Peru, geography with landmines in Cambodia and religious education with food, water and health in Ethiopia.
The stories of the teenagers highlight different problems facing their countries. Jeggo is a seven-year-old from a mountainous region of Ethiopia where water is scarce. Every day she has to walk up a mountain to collect water. When her container is full, it weighs nearly as much as she does.
Fourteen-year-old Flor left her shantytown home in Lima when her father became violent. As a street child, she got involved in glue-sniffing and begging until a worker from World Vision's partner agency in Peru found her a place in a safe house, where she now lives.
Romdol lost her leg stepping on one of the millions of landmines that are a legacy of Cambodia's civil war. With her family made penniless by her year-long hospitalisation and her injuries precluding school attendance, the nine-year-old's future is bleak. All three tell how World Vision has improved their lives in various ways.
A video that comes with the pack has snippets on the children interspersed in a format that is designed to lure kids into doing the fast. It is presented in that children's telly style that you might suspect them of having grown tired of by now, but which they resolutely adhere to: jumpy close-ups of teen icon presenter Dan Falzon of Neighbours wearing a curiously clinging t-shirt, soundtrack and pop video clips of Top of the Pops regular Michelle Gayle and snippets of earnest discussion of telly stars.
The last item contained bits from a film of last year's Famine as experienced by some teenage Byker's Grove stars. In it they talk about how hungry they are, what they would like to eat and, later and somewhat more philosophically, how the money they're raising should be sent to "teach them how to look after themselves". Even when you consider that the video is produced by Salvation Army TV, the inclusion of so clumsily patronising a remark is frankly outrageous.
Still, the pack was well received by teachers last year. Robert Wallace, head of geography at Framwellgate Moor Comprehensive in Durham, was impressed with the professionalism of the teaching materials. "Included in the pack is material that could be used in a school assembly on development issues from an RE perspective. It was thoughtfully put together to create an instant assembly, even down to transparencies for overhead projection."
The organisational problems associated with having 100 11 to 18-year-olds staying in the school for the 24 hours meant that Framwellgate Moor participants took part in their own homes although, says a wistful Mr Wallace, "it would've been great fun".
While some of the pupils found the fasting difficult, others said they thought it would be much worse than it was. But considering that, as Mr Wallace puts it, "the whole point was getting them to see what it's like to go without food for a day", the pupils generally enjoyed it and will probably do it again this year, "out of humanitarian concern".
What the money buys and where to find out more
A donation of Pounds 1 goes towards buying tools for a skills training workshop for Peruvian street children. Pounds 2.50 buys two weeks' worth of food for a malnourished Ethiopian child. Pounds 5 contributes towards training a village health volunteer in Cambodia.
To receive a free 1996 24 Hour Famine Schools Resource Pack, write to the 24 Hour Famine Education Co-ordinator, World Vision, 599 Avebury Boulevard, Milton Keynes MK9 3PG, or call the 24 Hour Famine Hotline on 01908 841212.
Each pack comes with 30 sponsor forms.