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Food for the Hungry

HIV prevention was a side project for this Christian nonprofit until it received an $8.3 million grant for abstinence programs in developing countries

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Food for the Hungry is an Arizona-based Christian relief organization that implements development, health and food programs in more than 45 developing countries, including remote areas of Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Bolivia. The organization was founded in 1971 when Dr. Larry Ward made a $1,000 donation to Haitian victims of disaster. "They die one at a time; we can help them one at a time," was his philosophy.

Since then, Food for the Hungry has grown financially and has burnished its connections in Washington, D.C. Today the group is one of the leading organizations tapped by the federal government for food distribution programs abroad and its president, Benjamin K. Homan, was appointed to chair U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid. In June 2006, President Bush appointed Homan to a commission that will make recommendations to the government on ways to make foreign aid more effective. The group's government funding jumped from $17 million in 2003 to $28 million in 2005.

According to Food for the Hungry, more than 88 percent of its total income — including donations from individuals, churches and foundations — goes to field programs. The U.S. volunteers who join the group's "Hunger Corps" to work in developing countries raise money for their salaries and expenses among relatives and friends.

Until recently, Food for the Hungry's HIV prevention and care activities were smaller side projects to its core food distribution and development programs. But this changed in 2005 when the group was awarded an $8.3 million grant through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to expand its prevention programs in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mozambique and Haiti. PEPFAR is Bush's five-year, $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS in 15 developing countries with some of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.

Food for the Hungry's grant is part of a $100-million pool of PEPFAR abstinence funds awarded by USAID through its Abstinence and Healthy Choices for Youth program in 2005. Nine of its 14 grantees are American faith-based groups.

Food for the Hungry applied for PEPFAR grants in conjunction with other members of a coalition of faith-based groups called the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations, of which Homan is president. Ultimately, two grants were awarded, the grant to work on HIV prevention and another to care for AIDS orphans. Food for the Hungry is the lead agency and administrator of the prevention grant, through which the seven groups involved say they will reach 1.4 million youth with abstinence and fidelity messages over five years. Six of the seven faith-based organizations awarded the money had never before received U.S. government funding for HIV work.

In all of its programs, Food for the Hungry works with families and community and church leaders, and its officials say that they serve Christians, Muslims and people of other religions equally. This was clearly the case in the food distribution program a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists visited in Ethiopia. The PEPFAR HIV prevention activities, however, seemed more geared toward Christians. The manual that the organization uses to teach the classes heavily relies on biblical references and stories, and on its Web site, Food for the Hungry describes its HIV work as "Biblical training on abstinence and faithfulness, medical support, outreach, supporting orphans and HIV/AIDS victims."

Tom Davis, the organization's director of health programs, said in an interview that the manual — called Choose Life — was developed by another U.S. faith-based group, World Relief, and that it has been reviewed and edited by USAID officials to make sure it doesn't breach church-state separation rules.

Davis also said Food for the Hungry will soon be adding new chapters to the curriculum that will address condoms, sexual abuse and gender inequality, among other topics. PEPFAR has placed restrictions on the way condoms should be addressed through its programs: they should not be presented to youth as the main means to prevent HIV and condoms failure rates should be outlined. Groups are also prohibited by the Office of the Global Aids Coordinator, which administers PEPFAR, from talking about condoms to youth younger than 15 years old, said Davis.

 

Asked how he feels about the prohibition, Davis said that "in some countries it would be better if we could do it [talk about condoms to youth younger than 15]," but he added that his organization understands the rationale behind PEPFAR's rules and abides by them. Food for the Hungry has also developed its own "Guideline on Condom Information." In it the group says that it "allows for the promotion of condoms in certain situations," such as for couples when one of the members is HIV-positive, or for HIV-infected women who by using a condom could prevent a pregnancy and therefore prevent passing the virus on to their babies. The guideline also states that condoms are 80 percent effective in preventing heterosexual transmission of HIV, a figure also used by PEPFAR that has been disputed as low by other studies.

Davis said that the split between the groups that push abstinence-only education and those who think condoms should be the priority in HIV-prevention programs is hurting people trying to do work in the field. "We want to be peacemakers and say there's middle ground here," he added.

"With moderate increases in [abstinence and fidelity] you can see dramatic decreases in terms of the HIV problem," he said. "That's an important thing to take into account. Now, is there room for condoms? Yes, [there] definitely is. We want to preserve choice for people and that should be one of the choices."

Researcher Rachel Leven contributed to this profile.