Food aid meeting in KC comes amid soaring prices, hunger crisis

WICHITA, Kan. _ Against a backdrop of soaring commodity and fuel prices, government and private food aid groups from around the world are gathering next week in Kansas City to grapple with the growing hunger crisis in some of the world's most impoverished regions.

The International Food Aid Conference, which begins Monday in Kansas City, is expected to draw more than 700 people from 25 countries. Among them will be Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer; Henrietta Fore, adminstrator of the United States Agency for International Development; and Jeffrey Borns, director of the nation's Food for Peace program.

Historically high prices for basic foodstuffs — aggravated by the weak U.S. dollar, crop failures in many countries, competition by the ethanol industry and skyrocketing transportation costs — have increasingly plagued relief agencies. At the same time, food riots have broken out recently in Haiti, Egypt, and other countries.

It is in this climate that those whose job it is to feed the poorest of the world will come together to discuss global hunger at a three-day conference in the heart of the United States' grain-growing region.

Eventually, talk is expected to turn to one of the Bush Administration's more controversial food aid proposals: saving transportation and other costs by buying 25 percent of the commodities the United States sends abroad from other countries rather than U.S. growers.

Almost all of the food aid the U.S. currently sends elsewhere is bought from American producers, said Jay Sjerven, president of the U.N. Association's Kansas City chapter, with the U.S. providing more than half of the food aid that goes abroad in any given year.

Part of the reason for this long-standing commitment is the broad support among U.S. producers, processors and charitable organizations to do this work, Sjerven said. That coalition may not be sustained if U.S. commodities are not used.

"It is not a matter that people will all of a sudden decide food aid is not a good idea or that they feel this is something we shouldn't do. But the fact is you have to get these appropriations through Congress. And if you are going to promote these programs through Congress, you have to have people who are going to be agitating on behalf of those programs," he said.

"Who is going to do that if you don't have producer organizations that are knocking on congressmen's door and saying, 'We really have to do this not only because we have a self-interest in it, but because it is the right thing to do because people need food and it is in the national security interest of the united states that we provide it'?" Sjerven said.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program and one of the conference speakers, recently warned the world was entering "a new era of hunger."

The WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency, cited rising food costs when it appealed last month to donor nations for an additional $500 million to avoid cutting rations to some of the world's poorest populations.

Commodities — particularly wheat, corn and soybeans — are at all-time highs, meaning farmers are making more off of their products than they did even just a year ago, said Larry Adams, deputy administrator of commodity administration at the Farm Service Agency.

"It is a good thing. But on the other hand, it makes it more difficult for those trying to buy food supplements for the hungry," Adams said. "Budgets don't go as far."

Aggravating the problem is the fact that food shortages have led a number of countries to either suspend new exports or raise export taxes to discourage them, Sjerven said.

"This year, all these debates are taking place against the backdrop of a really crippling advance in commodity prices," Sjerven said.

He also noted it will be three to six months before the world starts harvesting wheat again.

"So we have a long way to go before we have a new crop. Even if it is a record crop that people are projecting on a world level, we have a long way to go before any of that wheat starts getting into the bellies of people," he said.