Food Shortages Hurt Church Response to Hunger
by Linda Bloom
July 15, 2008—For Marian Kelly, the sweet potato is an indicator of how the food market has changed.
In the past, the director of the potato project for the Society of St. Andrew would start receiving donations in March of older sweet potatoes from the previous year's crop. "The farmers couldn't really sell everything they had in storage," she explained.
Through its potato project, the United Methodist-related organization takes these donations of edible but unmarketable potatoes and delivers them to agencies that serve the poor. Donations for sweet potatoes have averaged a couple of million pounds within a three-month period.
During last two years, however, "we have noticed that it was getting later in the spring before the farmers started donating sweet potatoes to us," Kelly said.
She attributed several reasons to the delay in both delivery and tonnage. Sweet potatoes are being served in more restaurants, both baked and as fries, and they can be converted into a flour-like substance to enrich cake and other baking mixes.
More significantly, the use of corn in biofuels has directly impacted sweet potato use. Sweet potatoes are being used as a corn substitute--as a filler in dried pet food, for example--or are simply not planted as much as more acreage "is being diverted to raising corn for ethanol purposes," she said.
The net result will be a decrease in the number of "sweet potato drops" conducted by the Society of St. Andrew. In general, according to Kelly, donations are down. The organization moved just over 20 million pounds of food last year, compared to 30 million in 2006.
Additional fundraising will be a necessity. "It used to be that we could move food for a penny a serving a very few years ago," she said. "Now it's at least 2 cents a serving and even more."
Food, Fuel Prices Soar
The impact of soaring food and fuel prices continues to make the news. In a July 2 letter to the "Group of Eight" world leaders meeting in Japan, World Bank President Robert Zoellick wrote about the implications of the "negative shock" of the high cost of commodities on the gross domestic product of the world's 41 poorest countries. "For the most vulnerable, especially poor children, they (GDP numbers) mean malnutrition, reduced resistance to disease, and too often death," he said.
On July 11, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes announced that about 14 million people in the Horn of Africa are "in urgent need of food aid and other humanitarian assistance" because drought coupled with fuel and food price hikes are crippling local agricultural production.
An earlier report from U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization found 22 countries more vulnerable to such price increases because of the dependence on imports and the fact that many in those countries already are hungry.
The magnitude of the crisis is shaping the response of religious denominations and church-related organizations.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief already has a variety of programs that include food security as a component. Relief work in Sudan, for example, has included seeds, tools and land for displaced farmers. Milk-bearing goats in Afghanistan provide families with milk, wool and additional income. UMCOR's Armenia program assists children and adults in institutional settings with a nutritious diet.
But the agency recently created a Global Food Crisis Fund to provide a broader way for the church to respond and be part of the solution to world hunger, according to the Rev. Sam Dixon, UMCOR's chief executive. The fund will allow them to address spot crises and strengthen various agricultural projects around the world, he said.
At Church World Service, a three-person team of staff executives was appointed by the Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor who leads the ecumenical organization, to look at the food crisis. The five regional coordinators for CWS, who met in June, have been asked to prioritize programs in their regions that impact food security.
A key priority will be fighting malnutrition in children ages 5 and under, according to Richard Williams, a United Methodist and director of the CWS social and economic development program. "We feel that will be of paramount importance," he said. "If you don't catch them early, you will lose a generation."
CWS is involved in a number of programs aimed at helping communities provide for their own food supply and sell excess food at market for additional income. In Guatemala, for example, the agency has partnered with the Food Resources Bank, UMCOR and other denominations to help indigenous families build greenhouses and patio gardens to grow vegetables.
For years, Church World Service has raised money to address hunger and poverty issues--through projects such as the one in Guatemala--with its Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty Walk, more commonly known as the CROP Walk.
Many United Methodists are among interfaith walkers in some 2,000 U.S. cities and towns who participate in the annual event. A portion of the money raised is used for hunger relief in each community.
Williams hopes local churches will continue to participate in CROP Walks. "This increases the resources we have to put toward food security programs," he said. "That's how the average person can really make a difference."
At Stop Hunger Now, the focus is on both immediate relief and social solutions to hunger. "Long term, we're never going to end hunger dealing with crisis situations," said the Rev. Ray Buchanan, a United Methodist pastor who is the organization's founder and president.
He considers Haiti to be the "worst-case scenario" when it comes to hunger in the Western Hemisphere. In April, thousands of hungry Haitians were held back by U.N. peacekeeping troops as they demonstrated at the presidential palace. Soon afterward, Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis was voted out of office by opposition party lawmakers.
In the past two years, his agency has delivered two and a half million meals to Haiti, including about half a million in cooperation with UMCOR. Stop Hunger Now tries to think beyond immediate needs by providing meals to schools as an incentive for school attendance.
Information on how to donate to the Global Food Crisis Fund, UMCOR Advance No. 3019696, and the various other hunger-related organizations and projects supported by the United Methodist Advance can be found by typing the ministry name, project number or the word "hunger" into the search box at www.givetomission.org.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.