Afghans receive 'message of hope' in bags of grain

Monday, December 17, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The average American or European would not know what to do with a bag of raw grain. But for millions of Afghans facing starvation after years of drought and war, it is the best thing aid officials say they can give.

Raw wheat stays fresher longer than flour. Recipients put the grain in a bowl, grind it up, remove the flour and mix it with water from a well or stream. The dough is baked in a stove, often made of mud, or over a fire. The result is the flat bread that is a staple of the Afghan diet.

"I run across very few people who have an idea about how to take whole wheat and turn it into flour," said Joseph Hotchkiss, a professor of food science at Cornell University.

"Most people, particularly most Americans, have gotten so far from the production of foods that they're pretty much clueless about what goes on between the farm gate and the grocery store."

Flour comes from one part of the wheat grain, the endosperm, which has to be separated from the hull and the germ.

Hotchkiss asked his class what they would do if they were starving and given a bag of wheat. The most common answer: Sell it and buy some food.

"They're surprised to find that 50 pounds of wheat is only worth about $4.50 in the U.S., not a McDonald's meal," he said.

The 120-pound bags of wheat being distributed in Afghanistan will feed a family of five for a month, according to the U.N. World Food Program, which manages the wheat distribution. Most of the wheat is grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Inadequate supplies

"You can't understate the importance of providing a food that will bring them comfort and is the kind of food that is what they're used to eating and will provide basic nutrition and protein," said Abby Spring, a spokeswoman for the U.N. agency. "You send a message of hope and you provide nutrients for survival."

But it is a meager diet: 972 calories and 32 grams of protein per person per day, a fraction of what Americans typically consume. A Big Mac and medium-size french fries provide 1,040 calories and 30 grams of protein.

"I hope we don't think we're providing 100 percent of their needs," said Cyndi Thompson, a nutrition specialist at Arizona State University. "We're giving them the staple, the bare minimum."

Unlike processed flour, raw wheat is not fortified with vitamins. A diet of only bread also would provide minimal amounts of many nutrients, including vitamin C, Vitamin A, iron and zinc, Thompson said.

As the political situation in Afghanistan stabilizes, more products will be brought in that are intended for children and the elderly, including flour, beans, cooking oil, sugar and porridge mix, Spring said. In addition, pregnant and nursing women are now given a milk product.

The U.N. agency has moved more than 100,000 metric tons of wheat in Afghanistan since resuming deliveries in late September and is feeding 3 million people this month. The agency's goal is to feed 6 million people a month.

Experts say it will be years before there will be adequate food supplies in Afghanistan because land mines and unexploded ammunition restrict the movement of crops and livestock.

There was an added benefit of the wheat this past week to one truck driver, according to the World Food Program. The driver avoided serious injury when his truck, loaded with bags of wheat, struck a mine, and the grain cushioned the explosion.

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