Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
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Congress should strengthen US role as world leader in providing food aid to famine victims

By Rev. David Beckmann on March 7, 2012
© The Hill

Last month, news reports indicated that the food crisis in West Africa’s Sahel region was worsening — at about the same time the United Nations declared the famine over in the Horn of Africa.

The countries in the Sahel, which is just below the Sahara and extends from the Atlantic Coast to the Red Sea, are among the world’s poorest. According to the U.N., nearly 23 million people in Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon — including 1 million children — could face food shortages this spring. This isn’t a new phenomenon. For years the region has been challenged by droughts, poor harvests, climate change and the impact of overpopulation.

While we can’t control Mother Nature, we can help the people of this region and others who rely on U.S. food assistance by urging Congress to protect food aid funding and to pass a farm bill that improves the nutritional quality of food aid and reduces costs and inefficiencies. Members of Congress will debate and authorize a new farm bill this year.

Congress should consider a bolder approach to how U.S. food and farm policies can meet our global and domestic challenges. Bread for the World Institute’s 2012 Hunger Report recommends that food aid programs should follow the lead of Feed the Future — a new U.S. Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative — by focusing more on improving nutrition for the most vulnerable people, especially pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of 2. This will help achieve the strongest possible nutrition and development outcomes with the limited resources available.

The most critical period in human development is the 1,000 days starting at pregnancy and lasting through a child’s second year. Healthy development, particularly in the brain, depends on getting the right foods during this critical time. Even short bouts of hunger can be catastrophic, because the resulting physical and cognitive damage is lifelong and irreversible. Early hunger and malnutrition is associated with problems later in life, such as chronic illness and poor school attendance and learning.

According to UNICEF (the U.N. children’s fund) more than 1 million children in the Sahel region could experience “severe and life-threatening malnutrition” this year, and more than 300,000 children under the age of 5 in Niger are at risk of severe and acute malnutrition.

The United States should strengthen its leading role as the world’s largest provider of food aid, and also move quickly to improve its nutritional quality. Current regulations should also be restructured and improved to include cash, vouchers and local procurement of food.

New mothers, young children and other vulnerable people — such as those living with HIV/AIDS — can benefit from highly nutritious forms of food aid now available. These cost more than the foods normally included in U.S. food aid, but it is possible to reduce costs by purchasing in or near the countries where the food is needed. By buying food from smallholder farmers in and around the region, we would help reduce poverty, build self-reliant communities and get aid to where it is most needed — more quickly and cheaply.

The longer-term solution to these recurrent food crises is to improve the productivity of farmers in the region, improve the process of getting food from farm to table, and improve access to markets through programs such as Feed the Future.

In crisis situations, food aid is critical. The farm bill gives the United States an opportunity to improve this essential tool and to more effectively help the poorest people in the poorest places, such as West Africa’s Sahel region. Food aid is a crucial tool in combating global malnutrition, and Congress should act before the next famine is declared.

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