Global Food Crisis Forces Difficult Choices

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.

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  • Grace Harman

    Jesus warned that in “the end- times” there would be many earthquakes, wars and famines. Why are we wasting corn on trying to make fuel? Why are we still paying farms to not grow crops? People do need food, medicine, and clean water, not pills and condoms. Abortion and sterilization are crimes against women and against God. How can Christians not see this?

  • wgsullivan

    The percentage of corn that enters the human mouth is miniscule and moot in this food shortage. No. 2 yellow corn, feed grade corn, is the vast majority of corn raised on U.S. farms. It is true that some acres normally planted to other crops have in the recent past been diverted to No. 2 yellow corn. More recently that trend has slowed. There are, however, positives for the food links in this ethanol boom. Feed grade corn becomes a byproduct, after fermentation, by ethanol plants which is then hauled to the feedlots and makes for a cheap enriched source of protein for cattle and hog feeders. The rest of No. 2 yellow corn not sold to ethanol plants is sold to feedlots, hog, and chicken facilities to be mixed in rations to fatten the animals for human consumption. This is a situation overlooked by many not directly involved in ag.
    Concerning the issue of paying farmers to not raise crops I agree that the government did us no favors by getting involved and paying for something not done. The industry would be much healthier if it had naturally dealt with the market ups and downs. Problem now is if the government were to pull the rug out from under the support system we would see major dissruptions. With the volatility and sharply higher priced input products and the risk of marketing corn and other crops it is possible to hang yourself in the blink of an eye. Most ag folks joke about never traveling to Vegas because they gamble everyday trying to make a living. That statement’s never been more true and the stakes have never been so high.
    Our food supply would be cheaper and safer if the government system (tax and support) favored smaller farms, not large ones.

  • We are challenged as Christians with the scandal of the poor. Here in America we are obsessed with consumption; eating, drinking, taking care of ourselves. Everywhere you turn you see the effects. Our endless supply of chain restaurants are filled to capacity every night, and so much goes to waste. We have a childhood obesity epidemic. I am as guilty as anyone. I love my weekend bar-b-ques, with food in quantity and quality that goes beyond the dreams of a typical Haitian family. What is left over usually goes to the dogs. Of course, the average American would say he is not rich; yet I try to remind myself daily that most of us are rich by the world ecomomy standard. That is why we will be judged more severely. We have been given much, and much is asked of us.