It was obvious the villagers had worked hard to sweep the floor of the meeting room clean before we met with them. You couldn't spot a leaf or twig on the dirt under the trees of the village. Benches built from well-worn wood had fresh saw cuts that showed the furniture served other purposes before news of U.S. visitors had reached the 337 folks who live in El Guacucal, Nicaragua.

Four American ag journalists and Illinois farmer Bryan Hieser traveled to the remote village of El Guacucal to witness a school feeding program sponsored by the United Nation's World Food Program (WFP). It's just one of thousands of projects that WFP has developed around the world to feed people where natural or man-made disasters have left them without adequate food.

In the best of times, El Guacucal is poor. Its crops of corn, wheat, beans and sorghum help feed the village and provide a limited income. In 2001, however, drought devastated its crops. Without the subsequent income, farmers had no money to buy more seed.

Through an interpreter, the El Guacucal villagers gave thanks to God, thanks to the WFP for its support and thanks to the U.S. for the food that keeps their children and village from starving.

“There are times that, if our children eat at night, it means the adults do not,” explains Teofiolo Moreno, one of the villagers. “We go to bed without food and the next day we wake up again to the same situation.”

The WFP is the United Nation's front-line agency in the fight against global hunger. The world's largest international food aid agency, WFP fed more than 83 million people in 83 countries in 2000. About half the food used in its programs comes from U.S. farms.

In addition, WFP works in partnership with other U.N. agencies such as UNESCO, the World Health Organization and the World Bank. It also works with literally hundreds of private voluntary organizations such as CARE, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Save the Children, U.S., Africare and Mercy Corp.

The role American farmers play in dealing with world hunger was clear in El Guacucal. Sacks of grain from the WFP had U.S. clearly stamped on them.

“I felt a twinge of pride that it might have been grain from my farm,” says Hieser. “I have always felt frustrated that we as American farmers produce a surplus of corn and soybeans and then have a feeling that it isn't getting to the people who need it.

“It was gratifying to see in this village that the grain was getting to the people who need it,” he adds. “But seeing the way they live, they aren't getting enough of it.”

One villager mother put the Nicaraguans' plight in clear perspective. “All children play. All children sing,” she says. “It's just that here they don't eat.”

The villagers in El Guacucal obviously aren't alone in their dealings with hunger. Every day, 24,000 people die of hunger in the world. Seventy-five percent of them are children. There are more than 300 million chronically hungry children in the world. It's estimated 170 million of them go to school on empty stomachs and don't receive any food during the day. Another 130 million don't attend school at all.

WFP's school feeding programs provide one meal a day for children who attend school. Beyond its nutritional benefits, the program keeps kids in school with enough energy to learn.

Attendance jumps dramatically in schools where children receive meals. It also increases the ability of the children to learn. Without meals, malnourished children often fall asleep in class or are simply too sick to concentrate on their studies.

“Feeding and educating children are key to closing the gap between rich and poor,” says WFP Executive Director Catherine Bertini. “It is now more important than ever that we look at long-term solutions to ending poverty. Giving a nutritious meal to a poor student today is key to helping him or her become a literate, socially responsible adult tomorrow.”

The school feeding program menu varies depending on what's available through WFP, what vegetables are available locally and the age of the children. Preschool children receive rice, yellow split beans, a tortilla and a glass of CSB, a thick drink made by mixing a corn and soybean blend with water. When supplies run short, school-age children receive only the glass of CSB as their meal.

Program benefits extend beyond the classroom, too. Before a school-feeding program begins, the community must organize and decide how food will be transported to the village, how it will be stored, how it will be prepared and who will have those responsibilities. The result is a community spirit that draws everyone together in a common cause.

It's just one of many challenges the villagers of El Guacucal, and others like them around the world, face. In this Nicaraguan village, there is one water well to serve the community. But the pump is broken and they can't afford a new one. With more families than houses, some families live together in one-room structures. Some of the houses are made with plastic tarps. There is no electricity in the village.

“This was my first opportunity to walk and talk with people in poverty. It put a face with it,” Illinois' Hieser noted. But given that as a backdrop, the agrarian connections soon developed. “As soon as I started to talk with the farmers, we had a kinship. They wanted to talk about crops.”

Hieser couldn't help but contrast the difference between these farmers and those back in America. “Their world of subsistence farming is completely different from that of U.S. farmers, who picture themselves as struggling to survive,” he says. “I saw for the first time — in vivid detail — what subsistence farming really means. These men had ideal planting conditions while we were there but had no seed to plant and no food to eat. It doesn't get any more subsistent than that.”

Grains Of Hope

American soybeans will play a larger role in feeding initiatives like the World Food Program (WFP), thanks to the World Initiative for Soybeans in Human Health. WISHH was launched in 2000 by the American Soybean Association and qualified state soybean boards.

WISHH promotes the use of soy in developing countries where people can benefit from it in their diets.

Sending grain overseas for relief efforts brings economic benefits to both the receiving countries and the U.S. USDA data show that 40% of current U.S. ag exports go to countries that are former food aid recipients. South Korea and the Philippines, for example, have become major customers.

“Korea was one of our largest customers for soybean oil in 2000,” says WISHH Director Jim Hershey. “The country bought 33,000 metric tons of U.S. soybean oil in addition to 115,000 metric tons of soybean meal. In that same year, the Philippines was the No. 1 export market for U.S. soybean meal with purchases totaling 808,000 metric tons.”

The thinking behind international food aid is changing, according to Hershey. “We're trying to move away from the mentality of just donating surplus and thinking instead of sharing the bounty that we have in the U.S.

“It's exciting. It's a win-win situation. Poor countries aren't that way by choice. The ultimate goal of both organizations and recipients is that poor countries get on their feet economically and participate in the world economy. When we send new products to them as part of food aid, it introduces those products into their local economy as well as improves their diets. And when their economy allows it, they will be customers for those products.”

As a country, the U.S. is lending strong support for feeding programs through the U.S. Global Food for Education Initiative. A $300 million start-up donation of U.S. wheat, corn, rice, soy, dairy and other ag products is in the pipeline for 9 million school children in 38 third-world countries. Legislation is pending to extend the program.

For more information about the WFP, check out www.wfp.org. To see an expanded list of private volunteer organizations, go to www.interaction.org/index.html.