Food Resources: Help That Lasts a Long Time

January 6, 2006

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    One of the ways Mercy Corps addresses hunger and nutrition is to conduct feeding programs in places like this school in Padang, Indonesia. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

Of the wide array of issues Mercy Corps tackles around the globe, hunger and nutrition may be the one most familiar to Americans. Nearly everyone has heard appeals to feed far-off, famine-stricken countries and the less fortunate closer to home.

But what about the complexities and subtleties of the issue? Mercy Corps nutrition programs - whether providing emergency food aid to famine-threatened Niger or helping Nicaraguan coffee farmers diversify their crops - look to go much deeper than simply distributing boxes of grain. In places where civil society isn't functioning, getting food to people is just one part of the puzzle.

We talked to Tom Ewert, Mercy Corps' most recent director of food resources, about hunger's hidden dimensions.

Q: Almost everyone with a television has heard Sally Struthers say that for pennies a day, they can feed a hungry child. So how much of what people think they know about hunger issues is true, and what are some misconceptions?

Tom Ewert: Well, a lot of it is true, but there are also a lot of misconceptions. Mercy Corps does some direct food distribution, but our main emphasis is on combining food into a broader approach. If families have jobs, if communities have clean water and some economic development, then a lot of these food issues are solved. So when we do food distribution, it's generally going to be short-term.

We're more likely to hire people to clear roads or paint schools or other things that benefit their communities in exchange for food assistance. We do maternal-childhood education programs, and try to attach lessons about growth monitoring and hygiene, so it's part of a whole package. If farmers have land but are having a hard time getting, say, tomato seedlings, or selling their surplus milk products, we'll help set up a nursery or a dairy-processing facility.

It sounds like the issue is a lot more intricate and complicated than most Westerners appreciate.

There's something very appealing about giving food to kids, no doubt about it. But we try to work with nutrition, the economy and the infrastructure to address things on a longer-term basis.

‘Sustainability' is such a big buzzword among many Americans who are concerned about agriculture issues. Where does it fit into Mercy Corps' approach to food?

It is a big buzzword, and frankly it doesn't mean too much. To go to a farmer and tell him that he has to do certain things to be "sustainable" is not very helpful. In Kansas, farmers have to go buy seed every year, and they can go to a bank to get a loan, and they can get their equipment repaired. In places like Afghanistan, none of those systems work.

So how do we help give a farmer a break - help him get seeds or get modern equipment? I once had a long discussion with someone who wanted us to be giving farmers in Zimbabwe corn that wasn't hybridized. Well, that's a system that farmers in the U.S. dropped 50 years ago, and farmers in Zimbabwe dropped 20 years ago. So how can you try to impose that on them?

Let's talk briefly about the situation in Niger, which is a place where Mercy Corps is doing direct food distribution.

The sad story is that because of Hurricane Katrina, funding for Niger dried up. We have a small program operating there, helping UNICEF with supplemental feeding programs for kids, growth-monitoring and some other things. We've put a lot of Mercy Corps money in, but we need more - there's much more need than we can address. It's one of the saddest places, really, because there's so much we could do, but very little money to support what needs to be done.

Does Mercy Corps do anything specifically designed to prevent famine and food crisis?

We are tuned into and participate in local, regional, national, international networks for information about responding to famine and food crisis. This effort is stronger in countries where we have well-established programs, such as Indonesia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan. Generally, I believe that Mercy Corps feels that by doing good development with a civil society focus, we will be aware of and respond to the hunger needs as (and hopefully before) they become apparent.

What are the best examples of success?

Eritrea is on the edge of famine all the time. All the time. We have a biscuit program that gives school kids a biscuit every day. And sure, it's just a biscuit, but it has 600 calories and 20 milligrams of protein. We've been doing it for awhile, and we're in the midst of turning it over to the Ministry of Education - that's always a great measure of success, when you can develop a program to the point where governments or people can do it themselves.

A lot of these schools are just tin roofs under a tree. There's no kitchen - you can't cook a soup. A lot of the schools don't have running water, and if a school doesn't have running water, a community probably doesn't have it.

Afghanistan is a great story, too - we've been able to help farmers grow wheat and grapes and other crops that there's demand for in the country. These are things they can grow in surplus and sell. That's the kind of help that lasts for a long time.