In 1979, Texas farmer Dan Langford told the Rev. Larry Jones that prices were so low for black-eyed peas that the farmer was planning to plow his crop under. The Rev. Mr. Jones suggested shipping the crop to hungry people in Haiti.
So Mr. Langford cleaned and bagged the crop, and Mr. Jones, a Baptist evangelical minister with a syndicated television show, made a successful appeal on the air for money to transport the crop to Haiti.
In 1980, he took Langford to Haiti. ''He (the farmer) met the people who ate the peas and he wept,'' Mr. Jones recalls. The Haitians ''hugged him,'' he said of the farmer.
Since then, the minister has been raising money and collecting commodities for a number of poor nations, including several in central America and Kenya. Recently he has begun collecting food for Ethiopia as well, through Feed The Children, a relief program he founded and now serves as president.
Since July his organization has sent about 430 tons of grain, powdered milk, and blankets to third-world nations. He estimates that Feed The Children, which is based in Oklahoma City, Okla., is shipping $4 million to $5 million in commodities a year to poor nations.
To most Americans, a donation means writing a check. But ''a lot of people don't want to donate money,'' says Christine Burbach, acting director of the Washington, D.C., office of INTERACTION, a relief coordinating agency. Some feel surer that their donations get where they are intended if they are in the form of food or clothing, she says. ''We're getting an awful lot of calls with people wanting to donate all kinds of things.''
The 75 or so parishioners of the Harahan Christian Church, in Harahan, La., near New Orleans, have collected about 15 tons of clothing for the poor in Haiti. Feed The Children arranged for the shipping. Now the church is trying to get funds to collect rice from farms in the state to send to Ethiopia. A grocer wholesaler has promised 5,000 poundsPsyyyM.t, says the church's pastor, MarIO ./ricella, ''The Lord willing, we're going to get 4 million pounds before it's over. The Lord is good. We just make it (the need) known.''
Some farmers may have grain in storage but not have cash on hand for a donation. But Church World Service has been encouraging farmers to sell their grain first and donate cash, says John Schultz, acting director of CROP, a relief program of Church World Service. ''It's more practical to use money and purchase larger amounts in bulk, or purchase near the (relief) site,'' he says.
In the case of African famine relief, however, supplies of food to buy in Africa have been practically exhausted, he says. ''We couldn't find much on the continent,'' Mr. Schultz says. So collection of commodities under the CROP program has been increasing slightly, he says.
Donating part of a crop is something like putting money in a bank. When you take it out again, it may not be the same dollar bills, but it is the same amount. Farmers donating grain, for example, probably have it in storage in their name at a local grain elevator. The farmer then assigns part of it to a relief agency. But that grain may be far from a port.
So the agency asks the grain elevator company to transfer credit for the grain to an elevator closer to a port. There an equivalent value of grain is withdrawn and loaded on a ship. In some cases, the value of one crop is swapped for an equal value of another crop, so bulk shipments can be made of one crop at a time.
Donations of 100 bushels are very typical, the Rev. Mr. Jones says, but that kind of contribution adds up. Feed The Children operates its largest program in Haiti, where some 5,000 children a day are fed through Christian schools.
Feed The Children is currently having its first audit by an outside firm.
''Feed The Children gets high marks for commitment and carry-through,'' says a spokesman for the international department of World Relief, the relief, development, and refugee arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. ''Feed The Children has helped supply us with grain for Honduras,'' says a World Relief official. ''They talk to them (aid recipients) about the gospel as well.''
But the question is not what religion the recipients have, Mr. Jones says. ''The question is: Is this a hungry person?''
His concern, like that of many relief officials, is that the long-term commitment to Ethiopia and other African nations will be hard to meet because people may lose interest. ''Regrettably, we tend to have a short attention span, '' says Schultz.