In the Field With CARE in Central America

I have spent much of my life working on food and agriculture issues as a congressman and as Secretary of Agriculture. Food production in this country is a complicated and important endeavor comprised of a set of issues and debates that span trade, environment, insurance, finance and beyond. But at its core, agriculture policy is about making sure that people, in the United States and abroad, can grow or afford enough nutritious food for themselves and their families. Right now, there are more than 850 million people around the world, many of them women and girls, who do not have enough to eat.

Last week I had the privilege to participate in a learning tour sponsored by CARE visiting small farms and nutrition initiatives in Honduras and Guatemala. Guatemala and Honduras are both recipients of U.S. food aid and investments, but both countries are still held back by high rates of malnutrition, particularly in rural areas where our delegation spent a large portion of our visit.

Guatemala has the highest malnutrition rate in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth highest globally. In Honduras, people face similar food challenges. While food is typically available in both countries, many families do not have enough money to purchase food that amounts to a nutritious diet. Without proper nutrition people, particularly children, suffer and the future of the country is put at risk.

When a country like Honduras or Guatemala can't adequately feed or provide economic paths for its people, the risk of violence, cartel expansion and instability multiply. NGOs like CARE, private companies like Cargill and federal agencies like USAID and USDA are doing a remarkable job addressing malnutrition and food insecurity and, though there is much work left to do, seeing their progress was inspiring.

In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, I met with women running a bakery making doughnuts and tortillas. Nearly all of these women were the victims of violence, extreme poverty and struggling to elevate themselves out of unimaginable conditions. One woman's husband was killed only a month before in drug-related violence. It is an incredible testament to the human spirit that these women could continue to improve their lives and possessed the entrepreneurial drive to make a better life for their children. One crucial element to understanding the importance of US assistance in violent and impoverished areas of Central America in particular is that failure to deal with these problems will undoubtedly increase migration into the US. Foreign assistance by NGOs, corporations and federal agencies provides the pathways and opportunities for people to stay home, build lives and not feel compelled to move to a strange country or face a life of violence and poverty.

Foreign assistance is much maligned in the US, especially in periods of fiscal constraint. It is a shame that foreign aid's detractors do not understand that it is clearly in the US national interest to improve economic conditions and reduce violence in countries like Guatemala and Honduras. If everyone could grasp the work being done by socially responsible corporations like Cargill investing in microenterprise, NGOs like CARE improving economic, education or health opportunities for women, or traditional USAID-style investments in development then they would understand it is an awe inspiring testament to the nation's cherished values of hard work, betterment and compassion.