Feed the people before our cars

Alice Bagley

When I was in Tanzania I stayed in a schoolhouse with walls covered with bags of corn flour. On each bag of flour was an American flag and the words “from the American people” stamped in bright red and blue letters. Those bags of flour made me extremely nervous the first two days I was there. It was only after I had seen school children lining up for a midday meal of porridge that the bags stopped making me feel nervous.

Right now, 854 million people are hungry. We are not talking in a “Man-I-haven’t-eaten-since-breakfast-I-need-some-Fire-and-Spice” kind of hungry, we’re talking “I-haven’t-had-enough-food-for-months-and-my-cow-just-died” kind of hungry; the kind of hungry that most of us, thankfully, cannot imagine.

Say what you want about corn, but it is a staple crop for millions of people all over the world. And as more and more corn has gone to producing ethanol, food costs have gone up. You may not have noticed this, because if you are reading this column you are likely living in the United States and therefore enjoy the lowest food prices in the world. However, if you were living in a country like Mexico where the cost of corn flour, a major staple food, has gone up 400 percent, you would have probably taken notice.

It is, of course, true that there is more than enough food on the planet right now for everybody and that the major issue is that the hungry people don’t have access to it. In many cases, though, hunger is a price issue. There are places all over the world where food is available but people go hungry because they cannot afford to buy it. Corn prices are much higher when the world’s top corn producer decides to turn two billion bushels of corn into gasoline.

Back in Elangata-Dapash, Tanzania, things are likely starting to get a little lean. It’s been about six months since the corn harvest and it wasn’t a particularly good one, just like the years before. For the past five years, in fact, that village has received food aid from the World Food Program, mostly in the form of bags of “yellow corn flour” from the United States. Almost every woman I talked to said that this food was extremely important in bringing her family through the lean parts of the year, and all of those women also said that it was never enough.

The World Food Program (WFP) is a UN agency that provides food aid to the people in the world with greatest need, and one of their major donors is the United States. The United States is in fact THE dominant food aid donor in the world, but this year they gave the least amount of food they have in a decade. In fact, the amount of food bought by American food programs in 2007 is less than half of that bought in 2000.

Which brings us right back to corn. Our government has not drastically changed the amount of money that it is putting towards buying food, but the price of food and shipping has changed. Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn, which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. It is immoral for us to use food as fuel for Hummers that we drive to the mall as long as there are not enough bags of corn flour sent to Elangata-Dapash.