Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From faith came help for hungry

Excess grain became famine aid

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The 1970s were a time of plenty on many Manitoba farms, but that wasn't a good thing.

Farmers were harvesting decent crops, but the grain wasn't moving. On-farm inventories were high and cash flow was poor. Some rural businesses even resorted to a circle barter system, allowing farmers to deliver grain to the local feed mill in exchange for credit at local hardware or furniture stores.

Even more frustrating for southern Manitoba farmers was hearing news reports of people dying from hunger in faraway places such as Bangladesh and parts of Africa when their bins were filled to overflowing.

Was there no way for them to get some of that unsellable, unmovable food to the people who needed something to eat?

What grew from that discussion is a story of faith. But it is also one of pragmatic, hard-nosed business acumen.

When Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief agency, first looked into the question raised by some of its supporters, the answer was no; there was no mechanism in place for a farmer in Canada to send food to a starving person in Africa.

MCC's John Wieler sat down with Art DeFehr, a Winnipeg businessman with experience working with the MCC in Bangladesh, Len Siemens, then the associate dean of agriculture at the University of Manitoba, and grain-industry employee David Durksen to explore options.

What emerged in 1975 was a food grain bank based on the Biblical tradition of storing food in times of plenty for distribution when times weren't so good. The concept allowed farmers to donate their surplus grain and know that grain would go overseas to feed the hungry.

It was unwieldy, impractical and it shouldn't have worked. But it did, largely because it gave farmers on the Canadian Prairies a direct connection -- a sense of community -- with the people they were helping.

In 1983, four more churches joined the effort, forming what is now known as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Thirty years later, the bank is owned and directed by no less than 15 Christian-based organizations, a co-operation between churches that more than a few observers have mused is an accomplishment in itself.

These members use the bank as their vehicle for delivering famine relief and development support through denominational partners in recipient countries.

The CFGB has vastly outgrown its original unwieldiness. In early days, elevators were designated as CFGB delivery points on specific days for farmers to deliver their donations. That soon morphed into in-kind matches at port for what the farmer delivered in the country. The dollar value of donations brought in matching aid from the Canadian government at a ratio of four to one.

The original food bank concept was a product of "tied aid," which until recently meant that a country's aid donations had to be sourced from its own farmers. The CFGB actually led the effort to "untie" Canada's food aid. The donated grain is sold for cash, which is used to purchase grain from where it's most economical and appropriate to local circumstances.

It could have been the beginning of its demise, as that severed the direct connection between Prairie farmers and the world's hungry. Instead, the CFGB's modern fundraising efforts have served to strengthen local communities on the Canadian Prairies.

It is now, in effect, one of the largest farmers in Manitoba. There are 5,500 acres -- the equivalent of four average-sized farms in Manitoba -- devoted to community growing projects every year. Local farmers, businesses and other volunteers donate land, resources and time to produce a crop sold for the bank.

Harvest bees typically involve dozens of volunteers and have become a place for farmers and non-farmers alike to interact over some good food served beneath the Prairie sky.

From that initial question, the CFGB has grown into a leading voice on food-security issues in Canada. As it hosted a celebration and and a conference on fighting hunger this week, it was a comment in a letter from one of the founder's daughters that set the stage for its future.

"Thanks for helping us to remember it is always possible to help," she said.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 B10

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