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Josette Sheeran (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Josette Sheeran (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Josette Sheeran wages the ultimate food fight Add to ...

Tonight there is no food crisis. We start with a crisp white Zuani wine, from the Fruili region northeast of Venice. Ms. Sheeran orders a spinach salad and a hearty Roman staple called cacio e pepe, a fresh pasta topped with gooey pecorino (ewe's milk) cheese and pepper. I start with anchovies bathed in olive oil, followed by the tenderloin with a side of cicoria, a variety of dandelion common to the Italian cuisine. It's all exquisite.

Ms. Sheeran has just completed her third year of her four-year term at the WFP. The 57-year-old divorced mother of three was born in New Jersey and is the daughter of James Sheeran, the Second World War hero and paratrooper who was caught by the Germans after the D-Day landings, escaped and fought with the French resistance (his book, No Surrender, was just posthumously published).

Ms. Sheeran comes by her food career honestly. After the war, her father organized a drive to feed the hard-hit towns he had helped to liberate. That example of public service has stuck with her ever since, though she spent the early years of her career as a leading member of the Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, better known as "the Moonies." She rose to become managing editor of The Washington Times, the conservative daily launched by the church and, in 1992, became the first and only American journalist to interview North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung.

She left the Unification empire in 1997 and has spent most of her time in public service since then. Her last job in Washington was undersecretary for economic, energy and agricultural affairs at the State Department, where she worked on Bush-era projects such as reconstruction in Afghanistan and aid to Lebanon after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Favoured by the Republicans for her can-do attitude, she was heavily promoted by the White House in 2007 for the WFP directorship and beat several high-profile candidates, including Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. Within a year of landing in Rome, she was on the front lines of a hunger crisis.

In some ways, Ms. Sheeran's job is easier than her predecessors' because she has more tools to keep the hungry from starving. Not so many years ago, the WFP relied entirely on donations in the form of sacks of grain - "tied aid" whose undisguised goal was to prop up farmers in rich countries like the United States. For the most part, the agency is now getting money (Canada was one of the first donors to "untie" its aid, that is, to provide cash instead of commodities).

Cash donations have transformed WFP from an agency that once moved surplus food around the world to one that can support agricultural development and allow hungry people to buy food in local markets. One such effort is P4P - Purchase for Progress - in which farmers in poor countries are nudged into the food supply chain.

It allows the farmers to contract directly with the WFP and has several novel features, including a warehouse that acts as a bank. They deposit their crops in the warehouse and receive receipts for 60 per cent of their value, which can be exchanged for cash. The balance is paid once the commodities are sold.

Cash also allows the WFP to fund what Ms. Sheeran calls "digital food" programs, using coded cards that look like credit cards. They are designed for regions where food is not scarce, but unaffordable. "In the food crisis, there was often food on the shelves but no money to buy it," she says. "You could see starvation in the face of food."

She whips out a blue card with "bon appetit" written in Arabic on it. The cards, ubiquitous in the Palestinian lands, are used in 25 countries. The credits can be used to buy food items in local shops, supporting businesses. "This card is credited with increasing the dairy industry by 20 per cent in the areas where it's used in Palestine," she says.

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