Food-Aid Lessons from Mangos in Nicaragua
By David Gist
My introduction to “food aid” came in the form of mangos, and took place in Nicaragua, where my wife, Wendy, and I spent six years as Presbyterian Church (USA) mission workers. Our yard was filled with mango trees, so every morning we cleaned and bagged the fruit, then went out and looked for children selling newspapers or cleaning car windows at traffic signals and gave them the mangos.
This “mango-distribution system” sounds simple, but it didn’t always go well. Have you ever seen a mango after it’s been in a plastic bag in 95 degree weather with 90 percent humidity? We soon switched from bags to baskets. But one thing was constant—whenever we delivered our “mango food aid,” the oldest child (usually a girl) would come to our car, thank us, call other children to her, distribute the mangos among them (starting with the youngest children), and return the basket. Not once did any child try to hoard them. Not once did the oldest children eat before serving the youngest.
Our experience delivering mangos reminded us that people in need take care of one another when given a chance. Additionally, while the mangos addressed an immediate need, we knew we had to go deeper to address the problem of hunger. But how do we go deeper? I pondered this question during my years in Nicaragua.
As the time came to leave Nicaragua, I felt myself increasingly conflicted at ending our mission. Were we abandoning God’s call to service? But I said nothing and kept my worries to myself. Our host organization held a worship service to say goodbye to us, and at the close of the service the pastors laid hands on Wendy and me. One leader looked at me and told me he knew I felt broken inside at the prospect of finishing our mission service. He went on to tell us we had it all wrong; we were only now beginning our mission service. The pastors then commissioned us as missionaries from Nicaragua sent to the United States to speak out for all those in the developing world—to go to the seat of power and advocate to bring an end to hunger, poverty, and injustice. And with that blessing, God propelled me to Bread for the World.
Today, in 2014, we have the opportunity to improve food-distribution systems. Smart, simple changes to food-aid programs would allow food aid to benefit millions more people each year—at no additional cost to U.S. taxpayers. How is this possible? Buying and distributing food in the region where people need it is much cheaper and faster than paying international shipping companies to deliver U.S. food from across the ocean. Local and regional purchasing also supports small farmers in the developing world, and they are the agents who will ultimately bring an end to hunger. Food aid, like a basket of mangos, meets an immediate need, but with reform it can do so much more and go so much further.
David Gist is a regional organizer, western hub, at Bread for the World.
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