by Marla Pierson Lester
AKRON, Pa. - In 2003, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) sent food or funds for food to 32 countries - providing sustenance for victims of war and natural disaster, those mired in ongoing poverty and others trapped by economic and political situations beyond their control.
In all, $325,490 Cdn./$249,000 U.S. was provided to purchase food locally, and approximately 3,100 metric tons of food of staples such as wheat, maize or beans were shipped.
"We're still seeing a lot of internal conflict and hunger," said Willie Reimer, director of Food, Disaster and Material Resources for MCC.
In Iraq, MCC was able to fill gaps by providing funds to buy vegetables or high-protein food for more than two dozen hospitals, as well as providing canned meat for orphanages and schools.
A total of 322 metric tons of canned meat was shipped to locations from North Korea to Liberia to Haiti, with 76.6 metric tons of canned meat and dried food going to Bosnia.
In southern Africa, devastated by drought in 2002, a combination of food aid and funds to buy food locally helped people in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe survive until the next harvest.
That effort continues in Zimbabwe, where the outlook for the next year remains grim."So far, the rains have not been good, and they should have come already," Reimer said in late December.
In northern Uganda, where MCC is providing a major food aid package in coming weeks, an estimated 1.2 million people have been displaced. Many more leave their homes each evening to avoid abduction by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
The food will be purchased locally, a tactic that saves time and money on shipping and also helps pump money into local economies.
When MCC decides to send food aid, the organization concentrates on both alleviating immediate hunger and on longer-term food security.
"Emergency aid is the first step in food security," Reimer said. "People need the energy to be able to work and create their own assets."
In India, the focus is not only helping families immediately but also developing the community. In Jharkand in eastern India, for instance, a two-month project will provide rice and lentils purchased locally for 1,161 people who work building a road, embankment or water tank.
The food is desperately needed in this drought-devastated area, but the construction will provide benefits far beyond feeding families for this growing season. It is meant to eventually give farmers greater access to water for agriculture and also allow them to cultivate fish.
Reimer stressed that MCC strives not to overlook countries whose situations are dire but almost unnoticed. "We want to look at not only high profile but also low-profile - places in the world where there is tremendous need but it is not getting as much press," Reimer said.
And for Reimer, behind each metric ton of food sent or received, behind each project proposal, is a face - whether it's the family in Kenya who told him that more food means the children go to school or the Ugandan mother in a displaced camp, watching her remaining two children grow hungrier and hungrier yet fearing to travel to harvest the crops in her nearby field. Reimer cannot forget the four children she lost to the rebels.
That is what strikes him the hardest - the violence, the hunger, the harvest ripe in the ground but food just out of reach. "There are places in the world where there is hunger and there is food, but people can't get to it," he said.
Yet, Reimer said - marveling at the hope he has seen in displaced camps, in the people gathered to receive much-needed food - that mother will likely go back to her field, trying again and again to get food for her children, risking for them.
And, if his experience holds true, once she gets to the food, she will share it beyond her own family. "We hear over and over again of people assisting each other in the worst circumstances," he said.
Even in the most crowded, most desperate camps of displaced people, Reimer has found those who will organize development committees to work for change, relief committees to hand out the aid that is received and those who will pull together people to worship.
"Just as you have chronic situations of hunger and disaster," Reimer said, "you also have longstanding ways that people cope - their strong faith, their willingness to look out and care for each other.
"These are all lessons for us."
=A9 2003 Mennonite Central Committee
MCC, 21 South 12th Street, PO Box 500
Akron, PA 17501 tel: +1 (717) 859-1151 or toll free (888) 563-4676
MCC Canada, 134 Plaza Drive, Winnipeg, MB, R3T 5K9 tel: +1 (204) 261-6381 or toll free (888) 622-6337