Television, newspapers, magazines and the web are filled with images of starving children – skeleton-like figures crouched like dogs on their haunches while their mothers wail in anguish. Sometimes these pictures from such far-away places as Sudan, Ethiopia or Somalia also include children eating bread, bowls of rice and other staples that may have come from food produced on the fertile land of Kansas farmers and their counterparts across the United States.
The idea for food aid for these hungry people originated 60 years ago in Kansas. Named Food for Peace, this program started as an outgrowth of our country’s foreign-aid policy.
Here’s how it all began. A few years after the conclusion of World War II, the United States implemented plans to help countries devastated by the war. The Marshall Plan in Western Europe became the cornerstone of this newly emerging program.
While some of the funding was used for reconstruction, other monies were used to help feed starving people left homeless and unemployed by the war. During this same period, the United States enjoyed bumper crops and began stockpiling huge commodity surpluses.
In September 1953, Cheyenne County Farm Bureau – in northwestern Kansas – held a countywide policy development meeting. In that meeting, Peter O’Brien, a young farmer and rancher, suggested that it would make more sense to give aid in the form of food items than in the form of money.
Cheyenne County Farm Bureau drafted a foreign-aid resolution that called for exporting grain to other countries. The northwestern Kansas farm leaders believed that if underdeveloped countries were able to secure food they would become major buyers of U.S. commodities once they became more prosperous.
The Kansas farmers also saw this as a “sure-fire” method to help reduce grain inventories and increase shipments of U.S. agricultural products that could generate more business for American processors, packers, shippers, railroads and ocean vessels.
The county Farm Bureau resolution became a state resolution at the Kansas Farm Bureau annual meeting and later part of the official policy of the American Farm Bureau Federation. In 1954, Kansas Sen. Andy Schoeppel sponsored legislation known as Food for Peace that passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by Kansas’ own native son, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Since its beginning in Cheyenne County, Kan., Food for Peace has gone through many changes. It remains, however, a key ingredient in our overseas plan to aid countries with food rather than money.
Food for Peace has worked in more than 150 countries and provided food assistance to more than 3 billion people since 1954.
In 2013, Food for Peace provided approximately 1.1 million metric tons of food aid valued at approximately $1.4 billion in 46 countries. It also provided $577.6 million in grants in 29 countries for local and regional purchase of food commodities, food vouchers and cash transfers under the Emergency Food Security Program.
Using food for humanitarian relief programs helps everyone. Without Food for Peace and the output of Kansas producers and their counterparts across the United States, millions of people will continue to go hungry.
It is only fitting we pay tribute to the Farm Bureau leaders in rural northwestern Kansas for planting this fertile seed that has grown to feed people and peace around the world.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.