Washington, D.C. – John Clement was 14 months old when his mother first brought him to a clinic run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Madagascar. He weighed 15 pounds which put him in the red zone – a classification denoting severe under nutrition.
Last week, Laura Dills, CRS’ Country Representative in Madagascar, told John’s story at a panel discussion on CRS’ international food aid programs hosted by the Senate Agricultural Committee on Capitol Hill. Dills was joined by two other CRS Country Representatives, Joe Curry of the Philippines and Juan Sheenan from Honduras along with Shaun Ferris, CRS’ Senior Advisor on Agriculture and Environment.
Dina Esposito, Director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, opened the panel, saying, “CRS is really a standout partner for USAID and for Food for Peace. They are one of the partners we do the most with globally, whether it is in emergency or development food aid.”
Esposito noted that she was reminded of the importance of CRS’ work during a recent visit to the town of Bor in the troubled Jonglei state of South Sudan. “Bor had been overrun a number of times, gone back and forth between the government and the rebels. To get to the CRS compound I had to ride in an armored personnel carrier which tells you something about what the CRS team was facing.”
“But there they were, regrouping after being displaced by combat, pivoting from development to emergency work, focused on responding to the crisis there,” Esposito said.
USAID’s Food for Peace supported the clinic in Madagascar where John Clement showed up, so malnourished that he was unable to hold his head up, let alone walk like most children his age.
“This was in the southern part of the country, a very poor, semi-arid region,” Dills said. John and his mother attended sessions that taught them how to use locally produced and available foods to provide proper nutrition.
“After three sessions, John was able to hold his head up,” Dills said. “After the 12 session program, he was able to walk.”
John was a beneficiary of a program that reached some 22,000 children under the age of two as well as 28,000 lactating mothers and 60,000 farmers, teaching them to grow better and more profitable crops.
Sheenan told of a USDA-funded school feeding and education program reaching every school in one of the poorest states in Honduras – some 54,000 students and 2,200 teachers in over 1,000 schools.
“The objective is to increase school attendance and increase the rates of literacy,” he said, describing a number of activities beyond school feeding, including transport to school, school gardens and teacher training. “The program is doing wonders, and the Honduran government is very interested in replicating the program in other parts of the country” Sheenan said.
In the Philippines, Curry described a USAID-supported program designed to link farmers to markets in Mindinao, one of the country’s poorest areas, plagued by political unrest.
“We are trying to build and grow agro-enterprises by training small farmers to be entrepreneurs,” he said of the program that has reached 33,000 farm families. “We want them not to depend on a single crop, but to think critically of what crops they grow.
“Once they find the markets, they need to produce the quality crops the market is demanding,” Curry said, adding that the program included not only advice on seeds and other agricultural items, but also on business, finance, and marketing.
One result has been contracts to sell red onions to the biggest fast food chain in the Philippines, he said, noting that both production and annual income has risen for farmers in the program.
Providing a broader view of CRS agriculture programs, Ferris noted, “What we are doing is providing the skills and assets people need not just to get out of a bad situation temporarily, but to really change their lives dramatically.”
“We work to take farmers from infrequent market engagement to occasional market engagement to consistent market engagement,” he said. “We want to see how quickly we can graduate people to different levels, to a more dignified place where they can have more control over their lives and futures.”
All members of the panel praised Congress for reforms to food aid in the recent Farm Bill, noting that the use of monetization can now be scaled back and that local and regional procurement of food could now be used to help spur local markets.