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World Food Crisis at Critical Juncture

Jeffrey Allen

Activists wear masks during a photocall arranged by the international charity Oxfam in Parliament Square in London. Oxfam launched an urgent appeal to mark UN World Food Day Thursday, saying the financial crisis had sent food costs soaring and the global total of people in hunger to nearly one billion people. (AFP/Carl de Souza)

MINNEAPOLIS - Concerns are growing that many low- and middle-income families in the
United States and around the world will not be able to afford enough to
eat in the coming months, especially as the global economic downturn threatens to undermine recent efforts to alleviate the global food crisis.

The United Nations
says another 75 million people were plunged into hunger and poverty in
2007 by a global food crisis that analysts have blamed on a disastrous
confluence of events, including rising fuel costs, erratic weather
patterns, and the widespread diversion of food crops for biofuels and
escalating livestock production.

Nearly 1 billion people -- almost one out of every six people on Earth -- currently do not get enough to eat, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

While this year's record grain harvest
has helped improve fortunes for some, 36 countries are still in need of
external aid as a result of crop failures, conflict, or continuing
local high prices, says a recent FAO report.

"The food crisis is not an issue of shortage but of inequitable distribution," adds the international human rights group MADRE. "Even as global crop yields are projected to reach record levels, rising prices place basic necessities out of the reach of millions."

And now global economic woes threaten to deepen the crisis for those already facing hunger and others on the brink.

As world leaders attempt to restart
faltering financial markets in an effort to improve the global economic
outlook, a top UN official is reminding them of the pledges they made
during a food summit in June to help bolster the agriculture sector in
countries at risk for hunger. He also warned of potentially fatal
consequences of altering trade rules or cutting off aid to developing
countries at such a precarious moment.

"The great uncertainty now enveloping
international markets and the threat of global recession may tempt
countries towards protectionism and towards reassessing their
commitments to international development aid," noted FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf Wednesday.

"It would be unfortunate if this were to be the case," Diouf said,
adding: "Last year it was the pan. Next year could be the fire."

Focus on Women Urged

A report from think tanks in the United States, Ireland, and Germany indicates that, over the past two decades, a good deal of progress has been made toward rooting out hunger in South Asia, the Near East, North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. But hunger still remains at or above "alarming" levels in 33 countries, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the report notes.

And the World Bank
warned this week that "the poorest households are reducing the quantity
and/or quality of the food, schooling, and basic services that they
consume, leading to irreparable damage to the health and education of
millions of children."

Women and girls will be the hardest hit, the Bank noted, because "gender disparities
in the quantity and quality of food consumed increase during times of
shortage. Mothers forego meals and in many countries boys get
preference over girls."

Adds MADRE: "The first step towards a solution is to recognize the central role of women in agriculture, as they make up more than half of that labor force. The next step is to listen to their solutions."

The International Center for Research
on Women, another nonprofit working against poverty and hunger
worldwide, agrees. "Bolstering women's role in agriculture through
agricultural investments and entrepreneurial opportunities promises to
reap a double dividend of both better food security and nutrition, and
greater economic growth," the group says.

Humanitarian aid workers
are calling on global financial institutions to provide a "bailout" for
the hungry to match the rescue packages provided for financial firms
around the planet over the past two weeks.

"We are witnessing an unprecedented
effort to bailout the global financial industry and an acknowledgement
that for too long, lack of government involvement and oversight has led
to massive failures in the market," says ActionAid International, which works in 42 countries. "A similar rethinking needs to take place on the food crisis."

The group recommends that at least $30 billion a year be spent "to invigorate environmentally friendly small scale food production in developing countries."

U.S. Not Immune

In September, asked readers to submit articles
on how people in their part of the world are coping with rising food
prices. From South Carolina and Georgia to Texas, Iowa, and New York,
Americans wrote about how they and their neighbors have begun to alter
their diets and shopping habits.

"It is becoming more and more expensive to buy groceries and the
Brooklyn population is traveling far from their homes in search of the
cheapest markets to buy from," wrote Rosannie Murillo.

"Families are beginning to adjust their diets by cooking in their
homes what they used to buy in restaurants and planting the foods they
understand they can grow right in their own backyards. They are also
beginning to consume a larger quantity of fruits and vegetables and depending less on meat," Murillo added.

In Covington, Georgia, Robert Hyatt, Jr. noticed a similar trend.
"Suddenly, more and more gardens are starting to flourish among
citizens. It's seen as a cheaper solution rather than buying such items
at a store," wrote Hyatt. "Many meals are becoming planned more around
vegetables and fruits grown rather than meat and poultry purchased at a
grocery store."

Murillo sees that as a potential silver lining to the food crisis.
"During this time, food grown close to home, mainly farmers' markets,
now has a chance of receiving more publicity and becoming more
competitive -- selling locally grown produce at a lower cost than
regular markets."

But the rise in prices has forced many Americans to do more than just "adjust."

"Our local food bank is continually running low on food. The local Soup Kitchen
has seen their patrons increase by more than 45 percent over the course
of the last year," writes Iowan Sara Broers. "Being able to provide our
families with a hot meal is something that we have all taken for

Melissa Crossley says that she has considered her family to be
"lower-middle class," but now they are "one week away from being on the
streets....We still live week to week," she says, "but at the end of
the week sometimes we simply can't make it work."

"Our lives have become a game of which bill can wait the longest and
how can we make this food stretch? Do we buy food or pay the light
bill? Can we go without a phone for a month to get the boys school
clothes and supplies? Even with both of us working there just isn't
enough money for what we need, let alone things we want."

In Brownsville, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border, Bob Schmidt thinks the current crisis could help call attention to global anti-poverty efforts.

"Higher food costs and a strained budget are a reminder to everyone
that it is no fun when you cannot afford to feed yourself," Schmidt
says. "The result of this reminder may just inspire a few to be more
mindful of those who suffer from chronic poverty and hunger."

Schmidt recognizes that "this idyllic thought may be lost on most once food prices stabilize in the world's wealthiest country," but, he adds hopefully, "some will remember, and humanity may ultimately benefit."


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