I recently had the opportunity to visit Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the places most affected by high food prices. I saw firsthand the difficulties the food crisis is causing and the choices it is forcing families to make.
Some people of means now have to go without meat. Families with fewer resources have to make do with eating less at each meal, or skipping a meal, or even not eating on a particular day.
As I traveled through the streets of Port-au-Prince, I saw the children of families with enough money to pay school fees on their way to class. They were neatly dressed in their school uniforms, the girls with pleated skirts.
It occurred to me that the parents of many of these children will face an agonizing choice in a few months, as they have to pay school fees for another year. Perhaps they will only be able to send one of their children to school, and they’ll have to choose who will go and who will stay home. Or, perhaps nobody will be able to go. This is one more of the choices the food crisis will force upon the poor.
Around the world, the food crisis is making it harder for people to earn a living. We heard from our Catholic Relief Services office in Burkina Faso that even families considered middle class are having a hard time making ends meet. A government worker who earns approximately $236 a month — pretty good money in that part of the world — typically used 60 percent of his or her income for food. Now it’s more like 75 percent. And for the poor, it’s obviously worse.
Higher food prices are also affecting CRS’ ability to feed the poor. It costs us twice as much to buy food as it did a year ago, and shipping expenses have also doubled.
CRS is responding by getting cash and food into the hands of the urban and rural poor. In the short term, we will provide cash vouchers (like food stamps) to enable urban families to feed themselves. We will provide an opportunity for people to receive cash for working on projects that better prepare communities to weather disasters like hurricanes or cyclones. We are also seeking to help farmers in the developing world by investing in seeds, fertilizer and other materials that will help them in the next planting season.
In the medium and long term, we are seeking to reverse a decade-long decline in aid for agriculture by investing ourselves in means that will increase productivity, and advocating for the U.S. government to do the same. This investment will mean that more food will be available globally, so that prices can eventually come down.
This crisis is not a blip on the screen. It is structural. It will be long-lasting. And we probably have not yet seen the worst.