Aid groups criticize food drops

KHOJABAHUDDIN, AFGHANISTAN — KHOJABAHUDDIN, Afghanistan - In a food market in this dusty, drought-stricken town in northern Afghanistan, a Tajik woman paid 70 cents for one of the strange new yellow packages that have recently gone on sale.

"Food Gift from the People of the United States of America," the package read in English, a language the woman did not understand. Above the words, however, were images anyone could comprehend: an American flag and a drawing of a smiling man raising a spoon to his face.


The woman opened the bag and pulled out a package of peanut butter and a package of jelly. She tried them. She did not like them. She fed them to her donkey. He liked them.

Such was the fate of one of the 850,000 "Humanitarian Daily Rations" U.S. aircraft have been dropping on Afghanistan along with bombs since airstrikes began Oct. 7.


The United States says airdrops of the food packets are proof of American concern for the welfare of needy Afghans. Each packet provides a 2,200-calorie daily ration of foods such as barley stew, rice, shortbread cookies and peanut butter, which, in the calculation of U.S. officials, means that 850,000 Afghans have received a day's worth of food.

But if the robust sale of the packages at bazaars in northern Afghanistan is any indication, healthy, enterprising people are seizing a good portion of the food and reselling it.

That's not unusual, say relief officials. War is always a boon to a country's black-market economy. And the appearance of humanitarian aid in local markets could mean that Afghans aren't so desperately hungry - yet - that they need food more than the money they can earn from selling it.

Neither Pentagon officials nor relief organizations are under the illusion that the food drops will provide Afghans, desperate for food after years of devastating drought, with enough nourishment to get them through the fast-approaching winter. Several international aid organizations, including Oxfam, Action Aid, Christian Aid and Islamic Relief, said last week that 2 million Afghans need food - 50 tons of it a month, for six months, until the end of the winter.

Where aid groups and the U.S. military differ is over the food drop's ultimate effectiveness.

For starters, there are questions about the food contained in the yellow packages, up to as many as 15 different meals. Some of the items - rice, lentils, raisins and beans - are similar to the foods Afghans are used to eating.

But some of the other items are unfamiliar. The peanut butter, for example, seems more popular in the Afghan Foreign Ministry compound in Khojabahuddin, where many international journalists are staying, than with villagers.

"Ordinary Afghan people do not understand what to do with this food," says Wahidallah, a Foreign Ministry employee.


But Defense Department officials in Washington see it differently.

"Those are some lucky donkeys," says David Des Roches, the spokesman for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, upon hearing of the expanded use of U.S. rations. "Peanut butter is a wonderful food that is high in protein," says Des Roches, whose agency is in charge of the food rations.

Each of the meals, drawn up with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Army's surgeon general and the United Nation's World Food Program, is designed as one day's healthy meal, carefully balanced among protein, fat and carbohydrates. The contents reflect the U.S. military's experience with food aid drops in Somalia and Bosnia.

During the Bosnian war, some Muslims wouldn't touch some of the airdropped food because it contained pork. In Somalia, food parcels were so rich they made the critically malnourished even sicker.

"We realized we needed something that could provide all the vitamins, contain no animal products and be acceptable to any ethnic group," Des Roches says.

Producing that product is not cheap: each packet costs roughly $4.25. Asked if a food so American as peanut butter is appropriate for Afghanistan, Des Roches points to the fact that Spam - introduced to parts of Asia and Britain during World War II - is now a staple in many diets.


"Once people are exposed to it," he says, "they may develop a taste for it."

Yet aid groups say distributing food aid by air - while well-intended - may not be the best thing for the most critically malnourished Afghans.

"If you would give peanut butter to a severely malnourished child, you are likely to do more harm than good," says Lucas Van den Broeck, executive director of the New York-based Action Against Hunger.

The group, which has 500 local staff in Afghanistan, estimates that some 10 percent of inhabitants are severely or moderately malnourished and thus too ill to eat regular food. They need a special formula of oil, soy and sugars that Action Against Hunger has developed over the years to combat starvation, staffers say.

"There is no substitute for this," says Van den Broeck, "It's like medicine."

The second quarrel many aid workers have with the U.S. military's air drops is that when the yellow packages are dropped out of boxes from the back of C-17 cargo planes, they flutter to the ground where anybody can pick them up. Usually, it is the strongest and fastest people who get to them first.


In the town of Dashti-Qala - where officials say about 80,000 are on the verge of starvation - a crowd of several hundred people crammed into a dusty alley outside the Shelter for Life International office, hoping for aid. None of them had received a food packet, and none had the 70 cents to buy one in the local market.

"I don't have a job, so I have to depend on this [aid] for food," says a man named Afsi, who says he and his family of five came to Dashti-Qala last year after Taliban troops occupied his town.

The other day, Shelter for Life was handing out a month's supply of cooking oil to 3,000 families, registered as displaced persons who have no other way of gathering food.

"This is a far more effective way of distributing food than dropping it from a plane," says John Weaver, the group's Afghanistan coordinator.

But many ordinary Afghan people, who survive on the meager humanitarian aid distributed by the few international relief agencies still operating in Afghanistan, cannot afford to be picky. Not even about peanut butter.

"People would eat the American food packages if they could get them," says a Foreign Ministry worker. "These people are very hungry."