The Future of U.S. Food Aid Reform

The United States is the largest provider of food aid with approximately three billion people in 150 countries benefitting from USAID’s Food for Peace, the largest American food aid program.  However, since the program’s establishment in 1954, little has changed in policies dictating how aid is delivered.  The delivery system to countries in crisis is usually predicated by the Farm Bill:  currently, food aid commodities are shipped from the U.S. on American vessels, which can add to costs of food aid and delivery time.  This practice of shipping food purchased in the U.S. (as opposed to using vouchers or cash) can equate to losses as much as 30 cents on the dollar, according to a Bread for the World food aid fact sheet.  Additionally, buying local food instead of shipping from the U.S. could bring relief to people eleven to fourteen weeks sooner.

In 2012, $31.7 million was lost due to inefficiencies related to this practice; this equates to feeding more than 800,000 additional people through direct funding.  Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued, “It’s not just the waste that should bother us, but the harmful impact of dumping such commodities, which can destroy local farming, and in turn increase the dependency on aid we’d like to see end.”  A reexamination of U.S. food aid policy has been called for by President Obama and other NGOs to give relief programs more flexibility in purchasing food commodities and effectively reducing time and expense in delivering aid.

Another aspect of the U.S. food aid policy in great need of reform is its nutritional shortcomings.  Food aid that addresses malnutrition is considered to be one of the best investments in developmental assistance (food aid is also provided as disaster response, under the Food for Peace Act).  The shortcomings of food aid in meeting nutritional requirements of recipients have been documented by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a 2011 report entitled, “Better Nutrition and Quality Control Can Further Improve U.S. Food Aid.”  Nutrition is especially important in the 1,000 days between the beginning of a mother’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday:  the effects of malnutrition during this period are lifelong, irreversible, and often carry health, education, social, and economic consequences.  For example, malnutrition has been found to negatively affect a country’s GDP by as much as ten percent.  For more on this, check out the InterAction Policy Brief, Nutrition: an Investment in Growth.  According to this bulletin, every one dollar invested in nutrition generates as much as $138 in better health and increased productivity.

Congressional Quarterly recently reported that U.S. budget appropriators have agreed to allow a Senate provision that would allocate $35 million for food aid flexibility.  In an article on Food Aid Reform in 2014, Michael Igoe, Global Development Reporter for Devex, states if the Senate provision makes it into the fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill, the amount of food assistance funding dedicated to “monetized” food aid (i.e., U.S. food commodities shipped on U.S. ships) for non-emergency programs will be reduced by approximately one-third.  Advocates hope that a successful reform measure within the omnibus spending bill will also fuel additional reforms within the Farm Bill (final action on the conference report is now likely to come in late January).  For more on food aid reform, see USAID’s The Future of Food Assistance: U.S. Food Aid Reform.