I work for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and my business is food. Food assistance, that is. USAID provides food assistance every day to millions of hungry people around the world. Our food assistance improves the lives of ordinary people who we at USAID call “vulnerable,” or “food insecure.” When we distribute food or vouchers, it’s often to refugees, who have fled ethnic violence and bloodshed in a neighboring country; or to victims of a recent earthquake or flood, their homes and livelihoods destroyed, sometimes in a matter of seconds; or to kids, as an incentive to attend school; or to malnourished children and their mothers, who need a boost in calories, vitamins and other micro-nutrients to be able to continue their normal daily routine.
And what is that routine? In many developing countries, even during the best of times, daily routines are centered around where the next meal will come from. It’s hard to forget the look of dozens of women, wrapped in colorful garb, lined up under acacia trees in a north African desert, waiting patiently to receive their monthly ration of USAID food aid during the months of each year known as “The Hunger Season.” And then, there are the farmers with tools raised high over their heads, cleaning irrigation canals to get ready for the next rice planting season, buffered by American sacks of wheat or corn meal, along with split yellow peas and vegetable oil. Called “food for work,” this is an effort to help people unable to cover their basic needs through building community assets such as irrigation canals in exchange for food.
No matter how dramatic the images of people receiving food aid, it’s the daily, personal reminders of what it means to be hungry, and what we are doing to address that hunger for the long-term, which affect me the most….even after more than thirty years in this business.
The recent severe drought in the Horn of Africa brought sharply into focus the need to help communities be more resilient. Resilience means supporting communities so they can recover from shocks and disasters and get on with building their lives—so they won’t continue to need food aid.
In many ways, USAID’s food aid programs have been doing this for a long time, by helping farmers move beyond subsistence and farm more productively so they have a surplus to store or to sell, and can break the cycle of poverty and hunger. I have seen examples of this every day in my years with USAID, from Ethiopia to Haiti to Burundi. We are not just about handing out food in emergencies, but actively seek to help families become more food secure over the long run. Lessons we have learned from both the Horn of Africa and the Sahel are being applied to improve our relief efforts in part of Southern Africa experiencing worsening drought today.
We are fortunate to live in a bountiful country. On World Food Day, it’s good to contemplate our good fortune, and to be grateful for the chance to share some of that with our sisters and brothers on the other side of the globe.
Stan Stalla is a Food for Peace Officer based in Burundi. Stan has worked for USAID for over 30 years, with recent postings in Ethiopia, Pakistan and Haiti.