Published online: Apr 24, 2007 USPB Press Release
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DENVER--Once a year the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development host a conference in Kansas City, MO, dedicated to U.S. government international food aid programs. The 2007 International Food Aid Conference had a total of 696 registered participants from all aspects of the food aid community, including Private Voluntary Organizations that receive and distribute the food; the companies that produce some of the more specialized foods used in food aid programs; the commodity organizations, such as the USPB representing growers; the steamship lines and others involved in transportation; the countries that receive the food; the many agencies of USDA and USAID involved in programming and purchasing the food; the World Food Program, the United Nations agency involved in food aid distribution; and, of course, the myriad of contractors assisting with this entire process.

For the first time ever, processors joined the USPB in representing the U.S. potato industry. Jon Schodde of Idaho Pacific, Art Polson and R.J.Andrus of Idaho Supreme and Julian Awdry, RDO Foods, attended the conference to learn about food aid, and more importantly, promote dehydrated potatoes. USPB was represented by International Marketing Committee Co-Chair and Oklahoma grower Virgil Slagell, USPB staff John Toaspern and Dinah Tobey and Nutritionist Evalyn Carbrey.

Despite the huge gains made in agricultural production over the last 30 years, there are still over 850 million people worldwide that are hungry and under-nourished. According to the UN World Food Program, 25,000 people die every day from malnutrition. The United States government provides over half of the world's total food aid assistance, with $1.5 billion going to U.S. government operated programs, and a cash contribution of $1.2 billion to the World Food Program.

The U.S. government provides food assistance through a number of different programs most of which fall under PL480 adopted in 1949 and designed to feed the world's poor with the bounty of U.S. agriculture. Currently the majority, worth over $1 billion, of the food aid goes through Title II Emergency and Non-Emergency feeding programs administered by USAID. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service administers the much smaller Food for Progress and Food for Education programs. The USDA Farm Service Agency procures and arranged shipment of all food under these programs out of their offices in Kansas City.

In 2001 the USPB, in coordination with the state potato organizations and National Potato Council, launched the International Food Aid Initiative to try to get dehydrated potatoes into these programs. With the programs initially built and still utilizing surplus commodities purchased by the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation through the various support programs for bulk commodities introducing a high value product like dehy was a very difficult task.

However, the IFAI has been successful, and dehy has been purchased under all three programs. In addition to the demonstration projects carried out in the field with the PVOs and the training conducted in Idaho for PVO employees, USPB and U.S. potato industry attendance at the IFAC and other meetings is an important means of increasing awareness and understanding of dehy and its fit into food aid programs.

Utilizing four tables in the exhibition area, potatoes had the largest presence of any commodity at the conference. Idaho Pacific, Idaho Supreme and RDO Foods all had samples of dehy flakes and granules conference participants could sample at their tables, complete with add-ins such as spinach, bananas, dried fish and ground nuts that could be mixed with the dehy to provide an example of how dehy may be used in the field.

Posters and displays with pictures from around the world showing dehy being utilized in numerous different food aid settings adorned the potato tables, giving a uniform look to the USPB and processor exhibit area. Product samples and promotional materials were available for people to take home. During breaks in the conference sessions, PVO and U.S. government employees and others attending the conference came to the display to learn about dehy and discuss future collaborations.

The participating processors all felt it was a worthwhile experience and were impressed with the USPB's efforts through the IFAI, especially given the many hurdles faced by their product. "I was very glad to get a chance to participate in the conference as our company has been awarded some of the food aid contracts, but I did not really understand what food aid was all about," stated Schodde. "Now, when we produce flakes for Jamaica or Senegal, I will have a better understanding of the types of programs they will be used for."

For Awdry the collaboration with the Board greatly improved the potato message. "When speaking to someone from a PVO, I could explain about our products, but then Evalyn Carbrey could further explain how they worked in the demonstration projects and the nutritional benefits of dehy, while John Toaspern could arrange for follow-up meetings with the USPB to discuss technical assistance available to PVOs that include dehy in their programs."

Unfortunately, even though the U.S. potato industry thinks dehy is the perfect food for food aid, many substantial challenges remain to increasing its use. First, more and more food aid is being used for emergency settings such as the Tsunami relief or aftermath of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon.

To date, dehy has not been utilized in emergency settings. Given the vulnerability of the people involved in emergencies, the government is reluctant to try new commodities in these settings. Additionally, the majority of the non-emergency food provided under these programs is actually sold in the foreign country through a process known as monetization; the proceeds from the sale of the commodity are then used for development projects designed to increase food supplies in the country and improve the most vulnerable populations' health and sanitation. Dehy does not have a commercial market in these countries, so it cannot be utilized in these monetization programs.

"I had no idea food aid was not all fed to people," commented Polson, "but now I understand some of the challenges we face. Still though, the benefits of dehy, from nutritional components, the rehydration rate of six--one , which cuts down on shipping, storage and handling costs; plus the ease of preparation and lack of fuel required; makes it so that it meets some of the issues I heard discussed at the conference.

Andrus said, "There was a great deal of discussion about HIV patients and severely malnourished children, all of whom have compromised digestive systems and can't handle or benefit from some of the traditional food aid commodities. The ironic thing is that some of the attributes of potatoes that people complain about in this country, such as its high glycemic index, make it perfect for food aid."

Slagell finished the thought, "In talking with one of the PVOs that has used dehy in Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, they were so pleased with the effect that dehy has on starving people: it provides immediate energy and calories, plus many vitamins and nutrients that allow the patients to better absorb proteins and minerals from other foods eaten along with it."

Hopefully this show of force by the U.S. potato industry will allow the food aid programs to overcome shrinking budgets, increased costs, misconceptions and biases to help the U.S. government feed millions of starving people with the perfect food--U.S. potatoes.