Cover Story

Feed My people

"Feed My people" Continued...

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

The increases are forcing middle-class Americans to dig further into their pockets to buy a loaf of bread. In poor countries sudden price hikes are forcing those who live on less than a dollar a day-the "bottom billion"-to go without.

Investors and traders have been eyeing the food trends for months, but public officials found themselves kicked into the new food reality in April when Haitians rioted and attacked UN troops over food shortages. Hungry protesters stormed the presidential palace April 8 to demand the resignation of President René Préval over food prices that have risen by 40 percent in less than a year.

The protesters confronted UN peacekeepers, forcing them to fire rubber bullets and tear gas on crowds gathered outside the palace. Some ate grass in front of soldiers and cameras to demonstrate their desperation. Elsewhere other Haitians have come to depend on a traditional stomach-filler known as "mud cookies" or "clay cakes"-a health hazard popularized as a snack and sold on the streets, made from a mixture of dirt, vegetable oil, and salt. Haiti is one of many poor countries that imports nearly all of its food, including 80 percent of its rice.

Before the street violence eased, Préval announced a price cut on rice and dismissed his prime minister (see story, p. 40) on April 12. The following day a UN police officer bringing food to his unit was pulled from a car and killed execution style in Port-au-Prince. Five others also were killed in the unrest.

At a weekend conference World Bank president Robert Zoellick warned that the crisis could mean "seven lost years" for those fighting poverty: "While many are worrying about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs, and it's getting more and more difficult every day," Zoellick said. On April 14, President George Bush ordered that $200 million in emergency food aid be made available to meet "unanticipated food aid needs in Africa and elsewhere."

But price increases are hitting hardest where reliance on government-supported food is highest. In Egypt, where 85 percent of bread (or 230 million loaves a day) is subsidized, rising prices are forcing more people to depend on government bread and led to a nationwide strike April 6. At least seven people in Cairo have been killed in bread-line brawls.

In sub-Saharan Africa UN food distribution officials have in the past ladled out grain using a red plastic cup for the day's individual ration. Six family members? Six cups full. Now this same ration cup is filled only two-thirds full, they say. The UN's World Food Program has admitted that, despite plans to feed 70 million people this year, it now faces a $500 million budget shortfall.

In south Sudan that means a school lunch program that feeds 2,000 students is in jeopardy. Three schools operated by Servant's Heart Relief are all that exist to serve a total population of over half a million spread over 15,000 square miles. Many students walk more than five miles each way to school. "A school lunch is important, both because many students don't have any food at home to feed them and because of the long distances," said Servant's Heart director Dennis Bennett. The UN's World Food Program in the past delivered food by airplane to each school in the remote Eastern Upper Nile province.

This year, due to the rising cost of food globally and UN cutbacks, the World Food Program delivered food only to one location-more than 50 miles away from any of the schools. Now locals and Servant's Heart must raise money for transport of over 50 metric tons through 50 miles of jungle.

"This expedient probably saved WFP almost 50 percent of the cost of the food, but the cost did not go away," said Bennett. "If we can't raise the money and get the food to the schools, many of the students will have to stop attending."

For aid groups like Servant's Heart, the crisis is reviving old debates about how best to feed the poor without institutionalizing their dependency. World Vision International president Dean Hirsch told an international food aid conference April 15 that what works best is what works. "Far more important for World Vision than the method of food aid is that vulnerable children get the food they need. Our focus, therefore, is on outcomes: that no child should go hungry, be malnourished, underweight or stunted," he told attendees at a conference sponsored by the U.S. government in Kansas City, Mo.

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