The Common Good
January-February 2000

The Business of Relief

by Jim Rice | January-February 2000

Food---and much more---for the poor.

In the weeks after Hurricane Mitch roared through Central America, people around the world pitched in. Tons of supplies—and many volunteers—poured in to Honduras, Nicaragua, and other areas devastated by the century’s worst storm.

Soon, however, the deluge of support slowed to a trickle, as the world turned its eyes to earthquakes in Turkey or floods in North Carolina. For poor Hondurans and Nicaraguans, the struggle to recover from the hurricane’s ravages goes on. "We were poor before Mitch, but we were okay," one Honduran man said. "Now we have nothing."

Not everyone has turned away. Ferdinand Mahfood—"Ferdy"—is one who remains committed to helping those victimized by Mitch, but not by sending leftovers. "The way to help the poor is not to go into our closets and send used clothes," he said while visiting Honduras this fall. "To help the poor, you have to go to the poor and find out what they need." And that’s exactly what he does.

In the early ‘80s, Mahfood—then a Miami-based import-export businessman running "Mahfood’s Commercial Ltd."—had a revelation while visiting a slum in Jamaica, his family’s home country. First, he said, he had a startling realization as he looked at the hundreds of poor men, women, and children—"These were the faces of Christ." Second, he felt he had the right set of skills to actually help them.

"My gifts as a businessman were perfect for the huge job that needed to be done," Mahfood explained in an article in Guideposts magazine. "Running a large import-export firm, I had acquired the management skills to ship merchandise throughout the Caribbean. I knew how to cut governmental red tape. And I knew how to bargain to get the best merchandise for the best price. Missionaries had built facilities [like the one in Jamaica] for the poor. What they needed were supplies. That I could provide."

He’s spent the last 17 years doing just that.

MAHFOOD FOUNDED "Food for the Poor" to provide supplies for the poor in the Caribbean and—for the last three years—in Central America. Since 1982, the group has distributed—by its own reckoning—more than $550 million in food, medical, educational, building, and small business supplies. Nearly all has come from donations by churches, individuals, and businesses in the United States. In 1999 (through September) the group sent $75 million in goods-in-kind to areas battered by Hurricane Mitch.

Food for the Poor works almost entirely through churches. "When the church in the First World helps the church in the Third World, the face of the church will change," Mahfood told a group of journalists on a one-year-after-Mitch tour of FFP projects in Honduras and Nicaragua. "We go in and out of our churches in North America, and we worship this God who said, ‘I was hungry, homeless, naked...’ If you want to find God, you have to find him in destitution."

The group visited some of the thousands of people displaced by the floods and mudslides, as well as people living in newly built houses supplied by Food for the Poor and other groups—efforts that one participant called "private sector land reform." "If you don’t see God this week" in these people, Mahfood told the group, "you’ll never be able to see God, because that’s where God dwells."

While housing is an obvious priority for those who’ve lost their homes, many FFP projects support those seeking to start small businesses and other efforts at "economic development." For instance, the group works with Caritas, the international arm of Catholic Relief Services, which provided seed money for a women’s cooperative credit union in Tegucigalpa. FFP has sent hundreds of sewing machines, fabric, and small-business grants and loans for people throughout the region. In addition to tons of food aid, the group has supplied pumps for clean water, bikes and busses for transportation, medicines and money to support clinics, and building materials for schools and community centers. Over the last 17 years, Mahfood said, FFP "has never received a request from a bishop, priest, or nun and not have it filled."

For Mahfood, finally, his "business" of serving the poor is nothing more than being a disciple—and he considers himself lucky to be able to do so. "I feel sorry for people who don’t serve the poor," Mahfood said. "What I have gotten from the poor is not for sale in this world."

JIM RICE is managing editor of

Sojourners and was part of the October 1999 Food for the Poor-sponsored delegation to Honduras and Nicaragua. Food for the Poor can be reached at 550 SW 12th Ave., Deerfield Beach, FL 33442; (954) 427-2222; www.foodforthepoor.com.
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