Pascal Joannes' job is to find grains, beans and oils to fill a food basket for Sudan's neediest people, from Darfur refugees to schoolchildren in the barren south.
Lately Joannes has spent less time shopping and more time poring over commodity price lists, usually in disbelief.
"White beans at $1,160," the white-haired Belgian, 52, cries in despair over the price of a metric ton. "Complete madness! I bought them two years ago in Ethiopia for $235."
Joannes is head of procurement in Sudan for the World Food Program, the United Nations agency in charge of alleviating world hunger.
Meteoric food and fuel prices, a slumping dollar, the demand for biofuels and a string of poor harvests have combined to abruptly multiply WFP's operating costs, even as needs increase. In other words, if the number of needy people stayed constant, it would take much more money to feed them. But the number of people needing help is surging dramatically. It is what WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran calls "a perfect storm" hitting the world's hungry.
The agency last month issued an emergency appeal for money to cover a shortfall tallied at more than half a billion dollars and growing. It said it might have to reduce food rations or cut people off altogether.
The most vulnerable are people like those in Sudan, whom Joannes is struggling to feed and who rely heavily, perhaps exclusively, on the aid. But at least as alarming, WFP officials say, is the emerging community of newly needy.
These are the people who once ate three meals a day and could afford nominal healthcare or to send their children to school. They are more likely to live in urban areas and buy most of their food in a market.
They are the urban poor in Afghanistan, where the government has asked for urgent help. They are families in Central America, who have been getting by on remittances from relatives abroad, but who can no longer make ends meet as the price of corn and beans nearly doubles.
"This is largely a new caseload," John Aylieff, the emergency coordinator for the WFP's assessment division, said at the agency's Rome headquarters.
Aylieff and his staff assess the vulnerability of people in 121 countries. About 40 of the nations have been judged to be at risk of serious hunger, or already suffering from it.
The criteria include: how much does the country rely on imported food; how large is the urban population; what is the current rate of inflation, and what portion of their income do families spend on food (in Burundi, for example, it's 77%; in the U.S. it's 10%).
In the short term, officials predict food riots and political unrest, as has occurred in recent weeks in Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt. In Egypt, shortages of government- subsidized bread recently triggered strikes, demonstrations and violence in which seven people died.
In the longer term, overall health worsens and education levels decline.
"Finally they end up selling their productive assets [and] that pretty much means they will remain economically destitute, even when things come back to normal," said Arif Husain, senior program advisor for the assessment division, who recently moved to the WFP's Rome headquarters after years in Sudan.
Countries are taking steps to avert widespread hunger. Some, like Egypt and Indonesia, have quickly expanded subsidies; others, like China, have banned exports of precious commodities.
Afghanistan was the first country to request urgent help. President Hamid Karzai in January asked the agency to feed an additional 2.5 million people, most of them urban poor, in addition to the 5 million rural people the agency already feeds.
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, Abdul Fatah and his wife Nooriya raise their five children on her teacher's salary; he lost his government job a year ago.