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Does Food Aid Really Work?

The fact that 1 billion people around the globe live in chronic hunger puts bulk grain shipments and bowls of rice in high demand. But some relief organizations say the sustainable solution cannot be found in a bowl of rice.

For the Lorenzo family, hunger is a way of life.

Its effects reach far beyond the stomach. Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo are faced every single day with the challenge of finding an odd job, often for less than $7 USD a day, to provide for their family of six. If they don’t land a job that day, they don’t eat. It’s a common family pattern that contributes to Guatemala’s claim as Latin America’s most malnourished nation.

To help curb appetites, the two youngest Lorenzo children, Lourdes and Francisco, have joined a community feeding program. There, they receive at least one nutritious meal a day from Feed My Starving Children, a Christian hunger relief organization based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Even so, the perpetual lack of food in the Lorenzo household has led to a perpetual lack of good health, and the family members suffer frequently from serious illnesses. Often, Mrs. Lorenzo is too ill to take the children into town, and then Lourdes and Francisco must go without their supplemental meal. In turn, their health suffers, causing starvation to, yet again, threaten their young lives.

The story of the Lorenzo family is one among millions. Today, there are roughly 1 billion people who are “chronically hungry,” meaning they live daily with a scarcity of food. The sunken face of hunger has become almost numbingly familiar to the human population in recent years.

Last summer, when the Horn of Africa experienced the first famine of the 21st century, images of starving Somali children overwhelmed news channels. Seemingly overnight, the world woke up to hunger, and food aid flew to the top of every international aid agenda.

In the midst of this crisis last year, global economists projected a startling future for citizens of the globe: By the year 2050, 9 billion people will live on Earth. To prepare for this population upswing, humanity has less than 40 years to make enough food to feed an extra 2 billion mouths. It’s a daunting prospect.

These kind of projections keep food assistance agencies in a constant state of assessment and production, shipping thousands of tons of grains and cooking supplies to famine-affected and food-insecure regions. There’s little argument about it: People need to be fed.

The work of feeding the hungry is inherently biblical. Throughout His ministry, Jesus affirmed the importance of fulfilling people’s basic needs. He fed His disciples as He taught them. He was despised for sharing a table with the socially disreputable. He said that whenever His followers feed the hungry, it is as if they are feeding Him (Matthew 25:40). Even in the Old Testament, Yahweh commanded the Israelites to give a portion of their crops to hungry foreigners and the marginalized (Deuteronomy 26:12).

Feeding people is undeniably close to the heart of God. But not all food programs or strategies are created equal. Today, international hunger relief organizations must tackle more complex issues than ever, such as shipping logistics and political instability in regions of need. The choices Christians have to invest their time and money in the fight against hunger are endless.

In the midst of all these variables, it has never been more critical to practice and support responsible food assistance that respects and ultimately empowers the people who need it.

Nutrition Compassion

Food assistance is a complex issue spanning from hunger (symptoms of stomach pains and lethargy) to starvation (life-threatening conditions due to hunger-induced disease). According to UNICEF, 18,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes. This dire situation causes many hunger-relief groups—perhaps most—to focus on only one facet of feeding people: quickly filling stomachs.

The current method of many food assistance organizations is to ship tons of basic grains—called “filler food”—to countries in need. As the hungry feed on donations of white rice or a corn-soy blend, their stomachs are temporarily satisfied. However, such food donations create a system of dependency and do little to actively rebuild bodies suffering from deteriorated health. These immediate relief efforts only provide a solution for today—not a sustainable future.

“Bulk grain shipments feed people but don’t meet nutritional needs,” says Matt Muraski, international programs director for Feed My Starving Children (FMSC). In most hunger-haunted nations, he says, the problem is compounded by a long history of malnutrition. As they researched the issue, FMSC discovered feeding malnourished people nutrient-devoid food is like pouring water into a bucket full of holes. It’s inefficient, and—more importantly—it can hinder the health of a starving person.

Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian medical agency, is likewise alarmed by the ways filler food may be hurting more than helping global hunger. In a statement for World Food Day in 2011, the agency declared that “the global food aid system—led by the United States—largely continues to provide substandard foods to millions of malnourished children every year. The catalog of products available for food aid grossly neglects the needs of the most vulnerable.”

In response to this concern, more and more organizations—many of them Christian—are shifting their focus from if people are fed to what they are fed.

“Food is one of the most effective ways to help in the developing world,” says Jeff Nene, spokesperson for the Christian nonprofit Convoy of Hope. “Nutritious food is life-saving and nourishing, but it is also a tool that helps people move toward self-sustainability. It’s the first step on the pathway out of poverty.”

Nutritional concern is what drove FMSC to recruit scientists to help them formulate food-aid meals rich in vitamins, protein and dehydrated vegetables.

In partnership with Convoy of Hope and hundreds of other international organizations, FMSC sends these volunteer-assembled food packs to schools, orphanages, clinics, hospitals and feeding programs in nearly 70 developing countries. The food packs are used to build a foundation of health for communities in Kenya, Haiti, the Philippines and other nations, combining these feeding programs with education, agricultural training and other long-term solutions to poverty and hunger.

In this way, nutrition not only saves lives, but also builds new beginnings.

Foreign Aid, Local Flavor

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake. As Haiti struggles to rebuild its national agriculture, Convoy of Hope is using FMSC food to power school lunch programs and other nutrition initiatives in the Caribbean country.

But the foreign food donations are just the nutritious base, to which school lunch workers add fresh Haitian produce.

“It benefits the children’s health and the local economy,” says Nene. “But one of the greatest benefits
is self-esteem.”

When local farmers can assist in building the health of their communities, they feel like contributors, not victims of their environment. This, says Nene, is a biblical way to feed people.

“There are all sorts of biblical examples of helping people keep their dignity,” he says. “Christ never made the people He was helping feel lesser than [Himself].”

World Concern, a Christian humanitarian agency based in Seattle, is another organization taking a holistic approach to providing food assistance.

“It is not enough to just deliver food,” says Derek Sciba, spokesman for World Concern. “You have to think about the ramifications of what you do.”

In the Horn of Africa, World Concern provides not only short-term nourishment through food donations, but also is launching sustainable initiatives, such as digging new water sources and teaching new agricultural techniques to farmers.

Taking seriously the human dignity of those they serve, World Concern uses a ground-breaking program to feed the hungry. In regions where money is scarce and food shipment options are limited, they provide food vouchers for families to redeem at local markets. Through paying local food vendors fairly for each voucher they accept, World Concern avoids the problem many other food aid organizations face: stealing the agricultural business in the communities they’re trying to help. The voucher method enforces local commerce while boosting the morale of disenfranchised consumers and business owners.

World Concern’s methods are proving it is possible to address the immediate needs of hunger while establishing long-term solutions in developing economies. They meet the needs of the hungry while recognizing the inherent, God-given value of those they serve.

Sciba affirms that giving people options other than waiting in food lines not only increases the efficiency of food distribution but also lifts the spirits of the hungry people who live in complex, insecure environments.

“The vulnerable people who live in this context have no voice,” he says. “[Food vouchers] offer them dignity.”

Tools of Change

The good work being done in food aid efforts around the world go beyond just food. For instance, in food shipments to Latin America and Africa, FMSC often includes a custom food-processing tool developed by Compatible Technologies International (CTI), a Twin Cities nonprofit dedicated to improving the harvesting methods in developing countries in an effort to stop local hunger before it starts.

CTI designs and distributes food- and water-processing devices for subsistence farmers in the developing world. And while their devices, such as small grinders and micro grain-processing tools, may seem low-tech to Westerners, to the many farmers around the world who use labor-intensive harvesting methods every day, these tools are revolutionary.

“Most subsistence farmers only gather 58 percent of their crop through traditional grain-harvesting methods,” says Nancy Wagner, director of development programs for CTI. “Our tools increase yields to 92 percent.”

CTI develops farming technologies by first considering the problems farmers and subsistence communities face daily. All of their product development efforts start with field research, asking farmers how, why and in what way they use their current tools.

For instance, a peanut processor recently tested by farmers in Africa stands in the CTI headquarters right now, and CTI technicians will now work to modify the processor based on suggestions they received from those farmers.

Similarly, CTI has developed three tools to process breadfruit, an abundant, carbohydrate-packed fruit that is recognized as a viable solution to hunger in Haiti. These machines will help Haitian farmers quickly shred, dry and grind this easily perishable produce, thus putting the solution to hunger in Haiti into the hands of Haitian nationals.

By giving farmers in developing nations greater ownership over their food production process, CTI’s technology brings about real change in the developing world—change that’s rooted in the desire to empower people, not just meet their immediate needs.

And when we understand and implement these complex realities about food aid, we actually become more like Christ—serving both the stomach and the soul, remembering that each person we feed was made in the image of God.

Mandi Cherico is a freelance writer and seminary candidate, working with Feed My Starving Chidren.

1 Comment

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twoOregonians commented…

Excellent piece! Glad to see you helping define the differences between types of food aid: nutritional building blocks over filler foods; equipping farmers with their own food production rather than sending in processed exports from other countries; these are the issues we must understand if we're going to sustainably engage in filling hungry stomachs and growing healthy lands.

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