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Seattle Times: Region's Aid Groups Grappling With Global Food Crisis

United States, April 29, 2008

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Janet I. Tu

Seattle Times
April, 2008

For months, the reports had been coming in from around the world to Mercy Corps, the Portland-based relief and development group.

From Tajikistan, there were reports over the winter of food spoiling at markets because people couldn't afford it. From Niger, there were accounts of more and more people turning up at supplemental food stations.

But only in the last few weeks have staffers, and much of the world, realized all the incidents were responses to a worldwide leap in food prices — and part of a global food crisis.

Organizations like Mercy Corps and Federal Way-based World Vision say the crisis has come swiftly and is already impacting their work.

Mercy Corps this week established a Global Food Crisis Fund. World Vision says the number of people it's been able to feed has dropped by 1.5 million.

Experts have seen a food crisis looming, said Penelope Anderson, director of food security for Mercy Corps.

"What's surprising is how severe it's become all at once," Anderson said. "The level of need and the quickness with which it's arisen has kind of swamped us."

Information is still coming in from the 38 countries where Mercy Corps works. But every one of those countries have indicated it's a problem, Anderson said.

It's not that organizations have less money — both Mercy Corps and World Vision say donations are stable or down only slightly. It's that the prices have gone up so much that far fewer people can be helped.

In Syria, Mercy Corps' cash supply to buy food for Iraqi refugee families is the same as it was a few months ago — but now the organization can help about 20 percent fewer families.

And while Mercy Corps generally focuses on long-term efforts, the current crisis has "derailed a number of these programs," Anderson said. "You can't talk to someone about economic-development programs when suddenly their family is hungry."

A number of factors have led to the current crisis, including rising fuel prices, more corn grown for fuel, greater demand for grains and meat in China and India, and droughts in Australia and Russia.

"We're moving into — if we're not there now — the perfect storm," said Steve Haas, vice president of World Vision, which works in about 100 countries.

World Vision, which provided food assistance to about 6.5 million people more than a year ago, says more than a million former beneficiaries — about half of them children — are no longer receiving food assistance from the organization. The organization has also postponed several food-aid projects it had planned.

Organizations serving local communities are being affected as well.

The Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in Seattle said that, because of the worldwide rice shortage, it would drastically decrease its rice and other food distributions to more than 5,000 low-income clients.

Gary Tang, a program director at ACRS, said even if the organization spent the same amount of money on rice as it did in 2007, it could only afford to buy about 85 percent as much, if prices continue as they have been.

ACRS is hoping to raise $115,000 from its annual Walk for Rice event June 21 at Seward Park to help offset rising food prices.