This is a guest post from WhyHunger’s Global Movements Outreach and Partnerships Manager, Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau
The United Nations reports that the world produces more than enough food to feed its population. Meanwhile, 75 percent of the 900 million people facing hunger worldwide are farmers or farmworkers. Rather than supporting local farmers in their efforts to produce and sell food locally, US food aid policy currently mandates that food supplied to stave off hunger around the world be purchased from US farmers and shipped overseas by US shipping companies. The United States is the only country in the world with a food aid policy that begs the question: Who is aiding whom?
The US food aid program — formally called Food for Peace — has evolved over the last sixty years and become increasingly inefficient and costly. Food is now purchased from large American corporations at high market rates. Additionally, federal law requires that this food is then shipped by US companies — which offer less competitive rates than international shipping companies. In addition, some argue, food aid has become less humanitarian. Food can take 12 to 14 weeks to travel from halfway around the world from US shores; in the midst of a famine or after a natural disaster, that time can mean many lives lost.
President Obama recently proposed significant changes to US food aid policy that would reform practices that are expensive, inefficient, and increasingly ineffective at providing short-term hunger relief and instead move towards long-term support for sustainable development strategies that aim to eventually eliminate the need for food aid altogether. The Administration says that the changes will expedite aid and reach millions more people while saving US Taxpayers $500 million over the next decade.
The Obama proposal would end the monetization of food aid, which critics argue destabilizes local markets by undercutting local farm prices, and instead convert some of the existing appropriations into cash grants to non-governmental organizations, saving $75 million a year in shipping costs and providing the same amount of usable resources to the aid groups. Along the same lines, the proposed changes would allow the US Agency for International Development, which administers the Food for Peace program, to purchase up to 45 percent of international food aid from local markets in regions where the recipients live. These are good steps and WhyHunger joins many others advocating for food aid reform in arguing that millions more suffering from chronic hunger could be reached if the reforms allowed the government to buy almost all of its food it locally and regionally.
Ending hunger in the long-term will require supporting farmers to feed their own communities around the world, rather than undercutting their efforts with bags of grain grown thousands of miles away. In some cases, the best form of food aid¯ is actually something like an infrastructural project to build a road enabling farmers to bring crops to markets they couldn’t otherwise reach. Obama’s proposed plan would also make such projects feasible.
Even though the President’s proposal is non-partisan (it builds on reforms introduced by the Bush Administration), lobbyists and special interests and their allies in Congress are opposing the reforms. They claim that hundreds or thousands of jobs would be lost. However, US aid counts for only a fraction of US farmers’ business, and the shipping industry increasingly does most of its food-related business in non-emergency food exports.
Aiding our global neighbors suffering from persistent hunger requires recognizing that the root cause of hunger is poverty. The Obama reforms are a step in the right direction, reframing international aid as an investment in re-building local food and farm economies and a tool for poverty reduction. Peace begins not when the hungry are fed, but when the hungry can feed themselves.