Didion sees cause for concern over food aid

by World Grain Staff
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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — Recent lapses in U.S. food aid program execution as well as concerns over long-term prospects for food relief coming from the U.S. were described in testimony delivered Sept. 30 before the House Agriculture Committee by John Didion, chief executive officer of Didion Milling, Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, U.S.

The testimony was delivered in Washington as part of a public hearing on the U.S. International Food Aid Program.

Didion brought to the testimony more than 20 years of experience producing corn-soy blend and a wide range of products for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), principally for the Title II Food for Peace program.

“Our products have reached and helped serve a complete nutritious meal to over a billion people in over 35 different countries,” Didion said.

A problem that has emerged in the past year relates to super cereal plus, a product that has been purchased for years by the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations.

“Super cereal plus was specially designed by the World Food Program,” he said. “The product is packaged in retail-sized packaging to promote the dignity of recipients. Nutritionally, it is high in fat and protein, containing both animal and vegetable proteins. It is fortified with vitamins and minerals.”

The vitamin profile of super cereal plus promotes cognitive development and growth, strengthens the immune system and reduces the occurrence of blindness, Didion said. The intended recipients are infants beginning at the age of 6 months until 24 months as well as pregnant and lactating women.

In the U.S., purchases of super cereal plus only began in 2014. Didion Milling, which has worked to accommodate the evolving “food aid basket,” began producing super cereal plus, Didion said. After a burst of early enthusiasm, U.S. demand for super cereal plus has evaporated.

“(Now), there are questions about the future of the product being produced in the U.S.,” Didion told the committee. “USAID country directors, private voluntary organizations and program managers seem uninformed about the product and its availability.”

For his company’s part, a specially installed line for super cereal plus has been sitting idle for five months, Didion said.

Didion expressed concern about a long-term diminution of commitment toward the Food for Peace Program.

“In 2004, the USDA purchased over 200,000 metric tonnes of CSB, while in fiscal 2014 there was less than 60,000 metric tonnes of CSB/CSB-plus purchased,” he said. “We have successfully adapted to this change and continue to participate in the program while others have opted out. We are most concerned about these changes on behalf of the needy recipients. Every night over 800 million people go to bed hungry and according to the WFP, the trend has worsened over the last decade.”

Didion expressed skepticism about ongoing pressure to convert a greater portion of food aid to cash instead of shipping agricultural products.

“On the surface, it may seem more efficient to send cash rather than provide in-kind food,” but the reality is more complicated, Didion said.

Citing a WFP study in Niger, Didion said cash support costs four times as much as an in-kind food aid. Cash does not always reach intended recipient, a victim of widespread corruption. Even when cash is used for food relief it may not be targeted for at-risk populations. A shift to cash may eat into support food aid enjoys in the U.S. farm belt, and cash doesn’t allow the positive global public relations that comes with bags labeled, “From the American People,” Didion said.

“We are proud ‘The Didion Difference’ has had a positive impact on lives of the needy around the world,” Didion said. “We ask all parties to work together to find and implement cost and time savings so we can reach more needy recipients. We believe Food for Peace is a food program that works and a program that should be continued with in-kind food aid.”

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