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They call it a global food crisis, but it’s a crisis felt mostly by the world’s poor.

“There are no easy answers for a problem as complex as the global food crisis,” says Jacqueline Koster, relief program coordinator for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).

“There are already 800 million people in the world who are hungry on a daily basis; that number is going up. Those people are getting hungrier.”

CRWRC is well positioned to help. As the relief, development, and social justice agency of the Christian Reformed Church, CRWRC is taking on the global food crisis from many angles, starting by feeding people who can no longer afford to feed themselves.

Relief from Hunger

Disasters can be avoided when people willingly share God’s blessings with others, and CRC members have been generous. Donations, including those to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) and the Food Resources Bank (FRB) in the U.S., along with government matching programs, raised more than $12 million for international food aid in 2006-2007.

That translated to 600,000 people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who received staple foods such as split peas, corn, and wheat from CRWRC—staples that supplement or completely supply basic dietary needs.

Countries in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti) are vulnerable. In Ethiopia, severe flooding in 2007 has magnified the struggle for food, leaving 10 million people in need of assistance.

CRWRC is partnering with Food for the Hungry International to provide food aid, improve access to water, and help Ethiopian farmers increase their crop yields so that food is more readily available locally.

The first objective of the project is to save lives, a task that will become increasingly more difficult as prices of basic staples like wheat and corn continue to outpace income in poorer nations.

“Our buying power has been reduced,” says Koster. “In Uganda we’ve had to adjust the budget on more than one occasion in order to keep the number of beneficiaries consistent.”

The Teso region in Uganda, East Africa, has required significant assistance over the past few years due in part to climate changes that have made the region drier in some seasons and flooded in others.

In 2006, CRWRC began training communities to grow amaranth, a drought-tolerant grain that’s been called a “super-food,” thanks to its significant nutritional benefits. Nearly 1,000 Iteso families now grow amaranth for food and for sale, reducing—at least to some degree—the need for food aid.  

It’s a crossover point from relief to development, so people can receive the help they really want—help that allows them to take care of their own needs.

Community Development

Helping people help themselves, which includes being able to put food on the table, is what CRWRC community development programs are about. Agricultural training for soil conservation, new methods for tilling, and techniques that minimize soil erosion and maximize soil production help ensure that more food will be available even in times of economic hardship or natural disaster.

Affordable food will be increasingly harder to come by for millions of families, but for the urban poor who don’t have access to farms or a backyard kitchen garden, hunger strikes hard as the cost of food increases but income does not. Small market owners or food distributors in cities also suffer, as food sold for income remains in the countryside to feed families where the food is grown.

“A lot of CRWRC’s focus is with peasant farming families, but we also work in cities where we connect with business partners,” explains Ida Kaastra Mutoigo, CRWRC-Canada director.

“Through skills training and microcredit loans we can help people address the problem of income level, so that their buying power can sustain their food needs. It’s about having good adaptation programs that enable the most vulnerable to weather a crisis when it hits.”

People living with HIV/AIDS feel the effects of hunger most. “Food shortages feed the crisis of AIDS, and HIV/AIDS feeds the food crisis,” says Mutoigo.

“Food crises stress people physically so they are less able to fight HIV and less able to grow the food they need to stay healthy.”

“People in later stages of AIDS are unable to grow what the community needs,” Mutoigo adds. “With CRWRC’s ‘Embrace AIDS’ program, we try to look at good options for food security that are not necessarily labor-intensive, either by giving goats or improving agriculture. Even someone who isn’t very healthy and can’t work an entire field can grow food if they are given good seed. CRWRC is doing that.”

Amaranth has been identified as being particularly good for people with AIDS. “Amaranth in Uganda and Kenya has really helped boost people’s immune systems,” Mutoigo explains. “Some people even thought they were cured of AIDS. Some HIV-positive people don’t realize what nutrition can do.”

Similarly, beekeeping projects in Zambia, Kenya, and Uganda are having positive effects on both income and immunity: selling honey is a good way to earn extra money, while eating honey boosts immune systems weakened by AIDS.

Living Justice, Loving Mercy

The global food crisis has been called the first economic disaster in a globalized economy. In such a large-scale crisis there is little question whether international policy has had a hand in creating the problem—or whether CRWRC has a role in helping set things right.

So, while grassroots challenges are addressed by disaster relief and community development programs, CRWRC’s justice work can impact policy change at the local, national, and international levels.

“In Ecuador, CRWRC has a program teaching indigenous peoples living in remote areas to raise guinea pigs—a major source of protein in that country,” says Karen Bokma, CRWRC social justice coordinator.

“People can keep themselves fed, but the program also addresses the larger social injustice in that country—the discrimination against indigenous peoples that limits their access to food.”

CRWRC helps people and communities recognize their basic rights to education and food, and encourages groups to be active in local governments.

“We work with farmers to put pressure on government to ensure their own food needs are met before exporting, and to lobby government to better manage food reserves,” Mutoigo explains. “Locally we work with communities to manage their own food reserves to see them through difficult times.”

At the international level CRWRC is addressing trade and aid policies through Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge, two global campaigns with one goal: to hold world governments to their promise to cut global poverty in half by 2015.

CRC members who would like to be part of the food justice movement can start by learning more. “Reading, asking questions, and joining social justice groups can all help us learn how our individual choices make a global impact,” says Bokma.  

“Traditional responses are good—like raising more funds—but this is a problem that requires a long-term sustained commitment by individuals,” adds Koster. “As a consumer it means reconnecting to our food and understanding where it comes from.”

“It’s not as easy as saying ‘buy locally,’ although there are times when buying locally-grown food is the most conscientious choice,” Koster continues. “But in other cases it may mean reading product labels more carefully and knowing where [the food] comes from to ensure farmers are receiving a fair wage and can feed their families.”

“We know we’re all connected,” Bokma says. “By keeping this in mind we can begin making choices that can reduce the negative impact we may have on people struggling to put food on the table, and increase the positive effect we can have on balancing the scales.”

CRWRC will distribute donations marked “global food crisis” as follows: 45 percent to food aid and relief, 45 percent to community development, and 10 percent to justice programs.

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