For more than 57 years, the United States has given food, through what is known as the Food for Peace Program, to hundreds of millions of people who were starving and malnourished. This program has used safe and nutritious US produced food to help famine victims, malnourished children and their mothers, and many others, including young children in school. It has been one of the best ways the United States has helped those in need and has saved millions of lives.
Now, President Obama and his assistants in the US foreign aid program have asked the Congress to take away most of the money for Food for Peace. They think that it is better just to give money to the United Nations and other groups to buy foreign grown food overseas instead of shipping food that has been grown by US farmers and inspected by the US Department of Agriculture to make sure that it is good for poor and starving people. They also want to take money away from the Food for Peace program and add it to their own foreign aid money – a budget that many in Congress think is already too big.
Those who want to do this think that buying food overseas – called “local purchasing” – is better than shipping it from the United States. They say that doing this will help poor farmers in Africa where food aid is needed, because food could be purchased from them. They also say that this will allow food to be delivered more quickly and cheaply. Several newspaper articles think this is a good idea. But is all of this really true? Is it that simple?
Think about it. If a country is having a drought or a famine, that means they do not have enough food. In fact, most countries that are helped by the Food for Peace Program are defined as “food deficit” and they import food. That means they do not grow or produce enough food for themselves. How can the large quantities of food that are needed for food aid be purchased “locally’ if there is no food?
The answer is that these large quantities of “local” food would probably not be purchased from local farmers at all. In Africa, it would likely mean going to foreign commodity traders on the East or West African coasts, who could then use US money to buy the food from other sources, including Russia, Europe or Asia – hardly “local” farmers. In addition, there is no guarantee that this approach would be cheaper or faster, especially since the “inland” cost of shipping food in Africa, and the time that it takes to do so, is the same, no matter where it comes from.
Buying and delivering food aid is not easy. Under the Food for Peace program, there are important requirements for product specifications, assuring top quality and proper packaging, guaranteeing shelf life, avoiding insect infestation, and standards for determining correct amounts of food and safe shipping methods. Most importantly, Food for Peace products that are purchased with US taxpayer money are acquired through open and competitive bidding, providing Congressionally –intended livelihoods to American farmers and shippers.
Who will pay attention to competitive bidding and quality and safety requirements if the US just gives money away overseas? United Nations agencies, such as the World Food Program, will not allow the US government to audit them, even if they have received large amounts of US money.
The experience to date with “local purchases” is very mixed in terms of adhering to these quality, safety, and pricing requirements. The Food for Peace policy already in place budgets for some local purchasing, while deliveries of safe, nutritious US food are arranged. This is appropriate. But will large scale “buying locally” mean lowering standards in order to obtain inferior food for hungry and poor people, just to be able to say it was not shipped from the US?
This is a complex subject, and the Congress needs to think pretty carefully about it. Killing the $1.5 Billion Food for Peace program in order to allow more “local purchases” – with all of the operational difficulties involved in “local” purchasing – could be very shortsighted. When other countries have done this, their overall contributions to feeding the hungry have ultimately decreased because taxpayers do not like giving money away instead of providing food. Further, it would mean an end to very successful non-emergency programs in maternal and child health, infant feeding, and school lunch activities that American private organizations have administered for over 50 years.
There is nothing inherently wrong with using the bounty of American agriculture and US maritime capabilities to help feed the hungry. Congress needs to keep this in mind or it may be shipping American jobs, instead of food, overseas.
Daniel Shaughnessy is the Chairman of the Board of the World Hunger Education Service. He directed US food aid programs in the Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture, and was the Executive Director of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger. He was also the CEO of Project Concern International, an American NGO that uses food aid for nutrition programs. He also has had many years of experience with food aid commodity purchasing and shipping.