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Efforts to help starving children in Niger

Church, Catholic Relief Services partner to aid African nation

While responding to a severe hunger crisis in Niger — where more than 3.6 million people currently face food shortages — Catholic Relief Services found a need they could not fill. They wanted to help severely malnourished children.

Forklift operator, Arlen Hale, loads 80,000 pounds of children's nutritional supplement called Atmit to be shipped to Niger.  The food supplement is from the Catholic Relief Services and the LDS Church.   Photo: Michael Brandy.  August 10, 2005                                (Submission date: 08/10/2005)
Forklift operator, Arlen Hale, loads 80,000 pounds of children's nutritional supplement called Atmit to be shipped to Niger. The food supplement is from the Catholic Relief Services and the LDS Church. Photo: Michael Brandy. August 10, 2005 (Submission date: 08/10/2005) Photo: Deseret Morning News

Those leading the organization immediately thought of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church, they recalled from past partnerships, is the only organization that produces Atmit, an easily digestible food made especially for children and the elderly.

"We knew (the Latter-day Saints) made it," said CRS spokesman John Rivera. "We knew it was effective. We knew this was the only place we could get it."

Atmit — a porridge, made of oat flour, sugar, powdered milk, and a vitamin/mineral mix verified by nutritionists at BYU — was designed to help those so malnourished that they cannot digest whole grains and food made with coarse flour. The Church used it to feed thousands of malnourished children during the severe Ethiopian famine in 2003.

So in response to the request from CRS, Church Humanitarian Services donated 40 tons (80,000 pounds) of Atmit. Slated to help as many as 7,000 malnourished children in Niger, the shipment left Salt Lake City Aug. 10.

The Atmit was driven to JFK Airport in New York City, then airlifted to Niger via Brussels. The food arrived Aug. 17 in Niamey, where Catholic Relief Services met the goods and started transporting them to feeding centers.

The organization chose to fly the relief to the African nation — a more costly option than surface shipping — because of the time-sensitive nature of the emergency, said Mr. Rivera. In addition to the Atmit, LDS Humanitarian Services donated some of the cost of transportation.

The humanitarian crisis in Niger is the result of two concurrent problems: last year's vegetation-devouring locusts and a devastating drought that have virtually destroyed food production across much of the north central African country, and have resulted in significant loss of seeds for future planting.

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its climate is harsh and natural resources are deteriorating. Sixty-three percent of the country's 11.5 million people live on less than one U.S. dollar a day. Catholic Relief Services is administering a $2.7 million relief program in the country.

Garry Flake, Church director of Emergency Response, said this is the first major humanitarian effort the Church has been involved in in Niger. Catholic Relief Services asked the Church to join the effort "based on partnerships and good working relationship in the past," he said.

An unidentified child plays near a sleeping child outside their house in Maradi, Niger Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. A first village in Niger has received a month's worth of cereals, vegetable oil and other aid marking the start of a U.N. food agency plan to distribute rations to 2.5 million people, officials said Tuesday. A locust invasion last year followed by drought have caused a food shortage in one of the world's poorest countries.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
An unidentified child plays near a sleeping child outside their house in Maradi, Niger Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. A first village in Niger has received a month's worth of cereals, vegetable oil and other aid marking the start of a U.N. food agency plan to distribute rations to 2.5 million people, officials said Tuesday. A locust invasion last year followed by drought have caused a food shortage in one of the world's poorest countries.(AP Photo/George Osodi) Photo: AP

"The tradition of collaboration between LDS and CRS goes back over 20 years," said CRS President Ken Hackett. "During the great Ethiopia famine of the mid eighties (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was both forthcoming and most generous in its collaboration with Catholic Relief Services operations in Ethiopia."

Since then, he added, a "bond was struck" that carried the collaboration into other parts of Africa and to Eastern Europe.

"Today as hunger and famine stalk the populations living on the edge of the Sahara desert, the compassion of American Mormons and Catholics gives testimony for our deep concern for our poorest, most vulnerable brothers and sisters."

Because of that relationship, it was natural for CRS to approach the Church, added Brother Flake. Atmit, he said, was a "product they needed desperately and needed quickly."

The Church plans to send additional containers of Atmit to Niger, and its neighboring country of Mali, by surface transportation, said Brother Flake. Mr. Rivera said his organization just wants "the people of Niger to get the help that they need."

He added, "We had worked with Atmit in the past. We knew for this situation and this context it was exactly what we needed."

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