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High prices eat into food relief efforts

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KAI RYSSDAL: The Minneapolis Grain Exchange doesn’t get a whole lot of press, but we’re mentioning it because of wheat prices. They trade high-protein spring wheat there. It shot up more than 20 percent today. Good old-fashioned winter wheat’s not booming quite that much, but even it’s been dabbling in record territory. Rising agricultural commodities like that is making food overall more expensive. It’s bad enough for us when we run to the grocery store. It’s potentially disastrous for international food assistance programs. Bob Bell’s with the relief group, CARE. Mr Bell, good to have you with us.

BOB BELL: Thank you very much.

RYSSDAL: What does this mean for your group, for the way you do business?

BELL: The mechanisms for us are that we generally get food, primarily from the United States government, and if the costs of food keep going up then that’s obviously going to have an effect on just how much food we can make available and how many people we can cover in a program.

RYSSDAL: Is there also an effect, as these prices rise, on government subsidies, in countries where those subsidies are needed?

BELL: It certainly may have an effect. Where you’ve got different governments, you’re going to have to figure out different ways, how they could provide support for different parts of the population to assure that more food is available to those people, because the fact is that not only are there issues around cost of food here in the United States related to food aid, but the other side of it, CARE’s got a great concern that you know we’re seeing rising food prices in nationally developing countries, so, yeah, that’s a problem and they’re going to have to figure out how they’re going to deal with that.

RYSSDAL: Well, what do you do if those prices don’t stabilize sometime soon?

BELL: That’s the magic question, and the question becomes what does “soon” mean? If you’re looking out over the next year it seems to me that one of the things that we certainly are going to be more interested in is what kind of support is going to be available for emergency assistance or what kinds of support is going to be available for what we would call “safety net programs,” and that is, for example, making sure that people have food if that resource is appropriate, so they didn’t fall down deeper into the hole.

RYSSDAL: Is there a chance that you might have to say, one day, we haven’t got it. We haven’t got the food to give.

BELL: Is there a chance? I suppose, yes. On the other hand, I don’t think that CARE believes that we will arrive at that point. What our big interest is, is how do we figure out ways to make more food available, so that is why, for example, CARE very much supports the idea of being able to purchase food locally and regionally on a much greater scale than we do now. We think that we’re moving in those directions, so I don’t think I would be prepared to say that we’ll reach a point where there just isn’t enough food for people.

RYSSDAL: Of course this is a bad time for you to be getting into the business of buying food with rising prices, right?.

BELL: It’s an absolutely bad time. It’s an issue that we faced over probably 50 years. CARE is an organization that has received food aid, primarily through the United States government over the years, and there have obviously been times in the past where prices have gone much higher. I think the difference for us, this time around, is that we are focusing more on what are the kinds of things that we might be able to do in countries. Working in alliances with the WFP or other organizations, and with governments in trying to deal with this issue of inflation. I can’t say that CARE would have all of the answers around that, but I think we see that there needs to be a collective effort to try and get at it. It is very much a problem.

RYSSDAL: Bob Bell is the director of CARE’S food resources coordination team. We reached him way down in Alabama. Mr. Bell, thanks a lot for your time.

BELL: Thanks you very much. It was a pleasure talking with you.

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