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U.N. food aid costlier as need soars

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For 15 years, he's been a "grocer" for Africa's destitute. But he's never seen anything like this.

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.

"Life is getting harder day by day," said Fatah, who is 45 but looks far older. "We cannot even buy meat once a month."

The price of wheat in Afghanistan has risen by more than two-thirds in the last year. Because staples such as rice, oil and beans are also expensive, Fatah and his wife are sometimes unable to buy pens and notebooks for the children to use in school. Unable to afford both food and lamp oil, the household goes to sleep early.

Kabul homemaker Mahmooda Sharif, a mother of three, said that instead of eating meat twice a week, her family can now afford it only twice a month. The cost of food competes with school expenses and medical bills. She has delayed dental visits because she can't afford them.

A world away in El Salvador, in hills that once yielded abundant harvests of coffee, signs of malnutrition are spreading.

Salvadorans need twice the money to buy the same amount of food they could purchase a year ago, meaning their nutritional sustenance is cut in half, the WFP says.

"My children ask for food, and how can I not feed them? They ask for some eggs, beans, and I give it to them," said Maria De Las Mercedes Ramirez, a 41-year-old mother of five. "I, as the mother, will eat less."

The Ramirezes are one of about 70 families living in shacks on a desolate coffee plantation near the town of Taltapanca, abandoned more than a decade ago when coffee prices took a dive. Most of the families are run by mothers; the fathers have left to find work in the Salvadoran capital, or out of the country.

Ramirez lives on about $80 a month that comes from wages her husband sends and the little she can eke from an occasional job pruning coffee plants. What Ramirez spends on corn has shot up more than 50% in the last few months, cooking oil is up 75%, and beans have doubled in price.

Many families rely heavily on schools that give students one meal a day.

"You can see a lot of concern in their faces when they come to pick up their kids," principal Delsy Amilia Chavez said of the mothers. "And some of the mothers are anemic. They can't afford to eat beans and aren't getting the iron they need."

The school meals are provided by the WFP, but the agency is transferring the program to the government and reports that some schools have been unable to continue them.

Carlo Scaramella, the WFP country director in El Salvador, said hurricanes and drought last year added an additional 160,000 people to the 100,000 that the agency was already feeding. One million are at risk, he said.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ordered army-owned bakeries that produce 1.2 million loaves a day to pour more bread onto the general market.

The government also allocated almost $1 billion to bread subsidies for 2008. It subsidizes 210 million loaves of flat round bread a day, the main item on most Egyptians' daily menu. As commodity prices soared, subsidized bread became precious, and fights broke out in queues at bakeries and stores.

The price of unsubsidized bread has gone up 10 times, and rice doubled in a single week, said Farag Wahba Ahmed, an official with Egypt's Chamber of Commerce.

In Sudan, where the WFP oversees the largest emergency food operation in the world, aid officials are drafting contingency plans for coping with a smaller supply. In Darfur, especially, they must tread carefully.

"There's no way we can come in and say, 'We have no more food,' " Joannes said. "It would create riots."

Darfur, the beleaguered region in western Sudan, accounts for three-fourths of the WFP's operation here, which in total distributes 632,000 metric tons of food valued at $700 million to 5.6 million people (more than in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia combined).

The WFP has sought to lower costs by turning to regional markets to buy food. Buying from local farmers helps the budget since it eliminates shipping costs. But because the WFP is such a big buyer, it has to be careful not to distort the market.

A 30% increase in costs in Sudan in the last four months is blamed chiefly on rising prices for locally produced sorghum. The WFP is already absorbing 6% of the national production and fears that buying more would destabilize the market.

Joannes boasts that he found a good deal recently on a mix of lentils from Ethiopia, buying them for only $700 a metric ton, far less than the going rate for white beans. But bargains are hard to find.

Back in Rome, Nicole Menage, head of the food procurement service, receives daily, sometimes hourly, reports on rising prices and falling reserves. It's like a mammoth board game, with multiple moving pieces.

She and her associates last year managed to find in China 12,000 tons of maize needed urgently in nearby North Korea. Then, suddenly, China slapped on an export ban and the agency ended up finding the maize in Tanzania.

"The only tool we have is to stretch the net as far as possible," she said.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

wilkinson@latimes.com

Sanders reported from Khartoum and Wilkinson from Rome. Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez in Kabul, Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau and special correspondent Alex Renderos in Taltapanca contributed to this report.

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