With global food and fuel prices soaring, the United Nations agency charged with feeding the world's hungry has launched an "extraordinary emergency appeal" for extra funds.
The World Food Program (WFP) says it needs more than $500 million by May 1. If the money doesn't arrive by then, the WFP says it will be forced to cut the food rations it distributes, which are a lifeline to millions.
The WFP estimates that overall food prices have shot up by 55 percent since last June. And the trend continues. Last week, the cost of rice jumped to a 30-year high as prices for wheat and corn continued to spiral upward.
The math is frighteningly simple. The WFP currently feeds 73 million people in more than 80 countries. The organization, which is entirely funded by government and individual donations, originally forecast it needed a budget of $2.9 billion for 2008.
But skyrocketing prices mean the WFP has already been left with a $500 million shortfall that it must cover by May -- or cut back on its programs.
The WFP says this is the first time in its history that it is appealing for extra funds not because of a crisis caused by famine or war -- but because of market conditions.
Increased demand for grain from countries like China and India, a series of poor global harvests, high oil prices, and a surge in ethanol production have all combined to drive up grain prices.
And ironically, as the organization tries to cover a gaping hole in its budget, it is having to deal with a whole new category of people who are turning to the UN for help.
"An agency such as ours is normally addressing the kinds of needs that arise from natural disasters -- we've recently had floods in Mozambique, for example -- or wars and conflict-related problems such as those as we've seen in Sudan. At the same time, we do have ongoing programs such as school feedings. Those are the 'knowns.' Those are the things that generally, on a year-to-year basis, we have a good idea of what kind of work that's going to mean -- with the exception of something like a tsunami," WFP spokeswoman Brenda Barton explains.
"What we are concerned about is that there is a new 'face of hunger.' These are people that are primarily in urban areas, not in the rural areas that we're normally assisting in," Barton says. "These are people that actually see food on market shelves but it's simply beyond their reach. They just can't afford it."
The WFP says Afghanistan is the first country to make a formal request for additional aid, as price rises start to affect urban dwellers who used to be able to feed themselves -- but can no longer afford to.
"We have had the Afghanistan government step forward some six weeks ago and ask us to assist some 2.5 million additional people," Barton says. "These are just people, primarily in urban areas, that can't afford the rising cost of wheat flour. That was a $77 million appeal. We have not yet had other requests from governments, but we're certainly prepared that those may come forward, because I think the 'crunch' from the price rises is still setting in."
The WFP says many other countries could soon be in Afghanistan's situation. In a report published last month, for example, the UN said more than 50 percent of Tajikistan's population is now in a "very unfavorable food security situation" and "highly vulnerable" to shocks.
Many other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are in a similar situation.