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.

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What’s on your plate?

Wow, it’s been a crazy few weeks!

Over the past three weeks I turned in the first draft of my thesis (the thesis that inspired this blog!), hosted a lovely friend who came down to visit for a week, and then attended the NOFA-VT conference in Burlington, VT.  It’s been hectic, but I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular posting schedule- I’ve missed things around here!

On Friday I’ll be posting a recap of an excellent workshop I attended with the purchasing director of a major catering company about effecting meaningful change through institutional partnerships.  In the meantime, here’s an awesome video from the University of Vermont Continuing Ed on food systems- it’s an informative and entertaining overview of food issues in the US today.  Got someone who’s interested in food issues but doesn’t know where to start?  This is for them!

the writing on the wall?

Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture 1971-1976

I came across something really striking in my research today—I’m reading an old paper written by Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture.  This is the guy who promoted ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’ planting, opened up US markets to foreign trade (which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself—except that it opened them up to the volatility of the global market and lead to a mild depression in the 80s) and promoted a ‘get big or get out’ policy that was good for industry and bad for most farmers.  He was a controversial figure who came to represent the first of the ‘revolving door’ agriculture politicians—lawmakers and bureaucrats within the government who had extremely close ties to industry.  He would eventually leave his post in disgrace, but he left an enormous legacy in terms of business-oriented (and partisan) farm policy.

He was already an accomplished agricultural economist and the head of the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department in 1952 when he gave a speech on the politics of agricultural subsidies[1].  In it, he offers a comprehensive critique of US domestic agricultural policy and analyzes the political climate leading up to the ’52 presidential elections.  I’m surprised by how much I like the guy—he’s concise and funny, and we agree on a lot of things when it comes to farm policy (chief among them that farm subsidies are out of hand).

However, what struck me the most was his analysis of the political climate under which farm policy was forced to operate.  Butz is harsh in his condemnation of Truman’s Agriculture Secretary Charles Brannan’s partisan and anti-farmer endeavors but adds an interesting caveat:

I am not being critical of Mr. Brannan, the person, when I say that. I am convinced that, given time, a new Secretary of Agriculture, under a Republican administration, would be subject to identically the same temptations and the same pressures to use the system just at [sic] it is now being used… the temptation to use this set-up for political purposes is, I think, almost beyond the power of human resistance for anyone who operates in the political environment in which cabinet members must function.

Makes you wonder- this is the same guy who came to popularize unwise farming purposes that benefited his administration in its political goals (i.e., through food diplomacy, especially in regards to the Soviet Union) while arguably helping orchestrate the demise of the small-scale farmer.  What do you make of this?


[1] The Politics of Agricultural Subsidies

Earl L. Butz

Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science
Vol. 25, No. 1, The Election Issues of 1952 (May, 1952), pp. 54-68

Published by: The Academy of Political Science

Mutatoes

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I wrote a post last week on using imperfect fruit in supermarkets, and I’ve just stumbled upon this wonderful (if extreme) example of nature’s creativity. This is a mutated eggplant photographed as part of Uli Westphal’s series on unusual produce, but the artist’s statement puts it best:

The Mutato-Archive is a collection of non-standard fruits, roots and vegetables, displaying a dazzling variety of forms, colors and textures, that only reveal themselves when commercial standards cease to exist. The complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. Produce has become a highly designed, monotonous product. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits, roots, and vegetables can actually look (and taste). The Mutato-Project serves to document, preserve and promote the last remainders of agricultural plasticity.

Would you buy ugly fruit?

There’s a cool article on the Grist today talking about selling ‘sub-standard’ apples for cheaper- this is an excellent way to both cut down on food waste and to make good, fresh produce more affordable.  Food waste in America is embarrassing- one 2004 study estimates that we waste 40-50% of our food.  One of the many reasons for this lies in grocery stores’ reluctance to sell ‘imperfect’ produce– not spoiled or old produce, but imperfect produce- for example, peaches that are too small or apples that have a smaller than desirable proportion of red to green coloring.  Seriously.

A consequence of this perfectionist view, though, is that we’re drastically reducing the amount of food that we consider fit for grocery store consumption, where most of the country gets its fruit.  And by doing that, we’re driving up produce prices.  The company in this article works with suppliers and grocery stores to create a supply of cheaper, imperfect produce– food that’s still fit for consumption, of course, but that’s not as pretty as the standard we’ve set.

So what do you think?  Would you buy imperfect produce if it was cheaper?  I know that I always loved it when the grocery store I worked at over the summer put out it’s 6-for-$1 bags of funny looking but incredibly fresh apples and peaches (cobbler, anyone?)- but do you think that this is a viable model?

Food Education Activities

Definitely one of the most engaging presentations I attended at the NOFA-Mass conference was a presentation by members of The Food Project, a farm-based youth outreach program in Boston.  It combines environmental stewardship with food education and youth leadership- all of our presenters were high school students.  They showed us a number of very useful and interactive activities geared towards community engagement around food.

One of the biggest problems with food system education involves surmounting the apathy barrier and making food issues seem real to people.  It can be hard to make people care about things that they don’t see- especially when what they do see is plentiful, cheap food.  The Food Project uses a peer-lead system similar to the WPI project from earlier in the week, and has developed a number of simple activities to educate and raise awareness around food issues.

They start with basic facts and definitions- i.e., brainstorming a definition for ‘food system’ and using statistics from Michael Pollan about food calories vs. transportation calories (in case you’re wondering, it takes 10 calories of gas to produce and ship 1 calorie of non-meat food and 40 calories for meats).  The real gems, though, are the interactive activities:  there’s one that focuses on the food system as a whole, two that focus on the actual contents of industrial food, and two that focus on workers’ rights (or lack thereof).

The first one, concerning the overall food system, involves splitting the group in half and having each of them construct a ‘food chain’ by putting cards in order.  These cards have various pictures on them showing different stages of the food system- a field, a truck, a processing plant, a grocery store, etc.  The trick, however, is that one group has been given a conventional food system set of cards that has twice as many cards as the other group’s local food system deck.  This lays out for people in a simple and visual way the amount of energy that goes into the two different systems, and the fact that the local group is favored to win (due to its fewer number of cards) can act as a metaphor.

The second activity involves arranging drinks based on sugar content- groups are given a number of cans full of popular drinks and told to arrange them in ascending order of sugar content without looking at the labels.  At the end, the sugar contents are read out, participants rearrange their cans into the proper order, and the presenter passes around a ziplock bag full of the amount of sugar found in the most sugary drink.

Immediately after that, individuals are given slips of paper on which are written long chemical ingredients.  They’re then asked to read the ingredients out loud- a task that often proves difficult, if not impossible.  They’re then shown a piece of plate on which a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake was spilled several years ago (the plate has dissolved; the milkshake remains, unmolded, in a chalky solid form) and told that the ingredients whose names they read off are, in fact, the ingredients in a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake.  This is reminiscent of the scene in Supersize Me wherein a number of McDonald’s products are put in jars to decompose. Most of the products mold over eventually, but the fries stay intact for six months or so (whereupon the intern throws them out).  This is another excellent way to engage people in what, exactly, they’re eating- it forces them to take a good, hard look at the contents of their food.

The final two activities are perhaps the most powerful, however.  They focus on Immokalee farm workers (for a great book that talks quite a bit about their working conditions, you should check out Tomatoland) and their working conditions.  The first activity involves filling up a basket full of heavy objects and running it up and down a hallway to simulate loading trucks full of tomatoes- this is a fairly lighthearted activity, but participants are constantly reminded that Immokalee workers (and, indeed, farm laborers throughout our food system) do this for upwards of ten hours at a time.

The final activity involves passing out a number of cards detailing heinous crimes- cases of human slavery, sexual assault, extortion, etc.  Participants are asked to talk about their perceptions of these events- when did they happen?  Where did they happen?- and are sobered to hear that a good percentage of the events happened in the US in the last five years.

These activities are an incredibly useful tool in teaching about the food system- they’re a good mix of lightheartedness and hard facts, and force participants to confront the contents and origins of their food.  And isn’t that half the battle?

Regional Food Hubs

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Another cool project by students at the WPI Center for Sustainable Food Systems focused on building a regional food hub in Southern New Hampshire.  I had heard of food hubs in the past, but didn’t give them too much thought (this was especially obtuse of me considering that I worked with the people behind the Intevale Food Hub last summer).  Turns out, food hubs are a really cool way for small-scale diversified farmers to build their markets.

One of the problems facing small-scale farmers is that it can often be difficult for them to find markets outside of CSAs or farmers markets, which constrains them to a relatively small consumer base.  The small scale of their operations also prevents them from accessing institutional markets, like nursing homes or schools.  These larger markets need a larger-scale food supply that can ensure their ability to feed large numbers of consumers.  These markets tend to be more stable, however, as they are reliable buyers over long periods of time.

Food hubs act as a middleman to bridge that gap:  they aggregate products from several small farms in one area and then sell those products to larger markets.  The aggregate nature of food hubs enables them to provide the consistency that these larger markets needs, and can also act as a low-commitment CSA for beginning farmers.  Instead of having to provide large amounts of food for weekly CSA pickups, a number of beginning farmers can contribute smaller amounts of their produce to a food hub CSA.

Food hubs are a way for small farmers to gain broader access to markets, and this particular project focused on building a physical structure for this farmer.  It was a wonderful application of engineering knowledge towards food system problems!  I had no idea that food hubs served this purpose, but what a great way to increase farmers’ access to markets!