US Food Aid Reform is Long Overdue

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Image courtesy of North Country Public Radio

I’m excited to see that Obama is proposing food aid reforms- US food aid as it stands today is an incredibly inefficient system that benefits US producers at the expense of the hungry.  Today the US is one of the few countries that still ‘ties’ its financial aid- in other words, the food that we provide abroad is grown, processed, and packaged in (and then shipped from, on US-flagged ships) the states.  The government buys surplus grain from farmers, then sells it to governments and NGOs who use the proceeds for development; this whole process is called monetization, and it’s incredibly inefficient.

I should also clear up some possible confusion in terms of nomenclature:  US food aid is a general term referring to food sent abroad to alleviate hunger/aid in development.  It’s generally provided through Food for Peace, a piece of legislation established by Dwight Eisenhower (more on that in a sec).  The Office of Food for Peace is situated within the US Agency on International Development (USAID), but one of its titles is administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Whew, okay.  Got that?

So Food for Peace is a piece of legislation that was originally established in 1954 (albeit under a different name; it was JFK that gave it its present moniker); US farmers were experiencing record yields as a result of fertilizers developed in World War II and were looking for a way to offload the surplus without diluting domestic markets.  Food for Peace was developed as a way to kill two birds with one stone– alleviating hunger while “[laying] the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.”[1]  Sounds good, right?  A win-win situation.

Except that over the past sixty years, agribusiness interests have come to hold increasing control over government at others’ expense and the Food for Peace program is no exception.  Rather than using our resources to build infrastructure and shore up agricultural resources in target countries—which will cost everyone less in the long term, both in societal and direct economic costs— farm state representatives and various interests are trying to ensure that our food aid system stays expensive and inefficient.[2]

Andrew Natsios, head of USAID under George W. Bush, has been fighting for food aid reform for the past ten years, but it’s been an uphill battle: when he introduced one of his pilot programs to distribute cash in-country to humanitarian groups to an audience in Kansas City, he “was almost physically assaulted”[3]; these programs are near and dear to many American interests, who argue that they are job creators along with altruistic endeavors.  However, Natsios argues that the system as it exists today is unacceptably inefficient:  “I’ve run these operations, and I know that food aid often gets there after everyone’s dead,” he says.[4]

Parker Wilde over at US Food Policy had a great blog post about this last week detailing the state of US food aid today, and it’s pretty sad.  He cites some astonishing statistics- more than 16% of Title II (emergency and development food aid) funds are spent on shipping from the United States. For example:

  • Buying food in-country, rather than shipping it from the US, costs about 50% less for cereals and 31% less for legumes
  • The average prices of buying and delivering American food across an ocean has increased from $390 per metric ton in 2001 to $1,180 today.
  • These costs eat into precious resources designed to feed hungry people—causing more than 16 percent of funds to be spent on ocean shipping.
  • Buying food locally means that aid will be received 14 weeks faster.

Some might say that we’re already one of the biggest food aid donors in the world—what’s anyone complaining about?  But innovation has been a cornerstone in American success:  how do we do something faster, cheaper, better, in a way that benefits more people?  It’s taxpayers that are bearing the brunt of inefficient and expensive US food aid policies—not to mention the development dollars that are going to transportation and packaging costs instead of into local economies that need it.  The US food aid programs total $1.5 billion—that money could do a lot more good if it were being managed effectively.

So why processed food?

I’m just starting to read Marion Nestle’s Food Politics after months of reading her blog- I know, I know, I should have read Food Politics ages ago.  It’s quite an eye opener- she has a knack for explaining things clearly and concisely.

One thing I’ve found particularly interesting is her explanation of processed foods’ dominance in food marketing.  Not only does processing allow companies to stand out in a sea of overabundance, but food processing means that the products are value-added:  you’re not buying raw greenbeans and uncooked rice, you’re buying a microwaveable meal that’s ready in a matter of seconds instead of minutes.  Greenbeans and rice are pretty much similar no matter where you’re getting them- but if you’re buying Lean Cuisine Greenbeans and Rice(tm), you’re buying a product, not a commodity.  You’re paying for the convenience, and the food industry is profiting from that.

So the question is- is that a bad thing?