Food aid or business aid?

Published May 5, 2007

Is America's food aid program a charitable endeavor designed to help alleviate starvation and malnutrition in the Third World or is it just a big payoff to U.S. agribusiness and shipping concerns?

Congress seems to think it is the latter and wants it to stay that way.

Right now, legal restrictions on our food aid program require that nearly all donated food be grown in the United States and shipped using American assets and labor. If a food crisis arises in sub-Saharan Africa, it can take four to six months for the relief supplies to arrive.

Of course, there is a far more efficient and responsive way to react to a hunger crisis. By allocating as little as 25 percent of our food aid budget for the purchase of food from local markets during emergencies, we could feed a million more people for six months and save 50, 000 lives, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Bush administration has been pushing this benevolent change in current law for three years. But every year, including this one, it has faced stiff resistance in Congress. It seems that the combined power of agribusiness, U.S. shipping interests and a subset of charitable groups that depend on the current system for a funding stream is too much to overcome. Even the salvation of 50, 000 people apparently isn't enough to budge the vested interests. Without an outcry, the Democratically led Congress is not likely to allow the change through.

We are a very generous nation when it comes to feeding the world's hungry. We supply more than half of the global food aid, with an average appropriation of $2-billion per year. But due to rising shipping costs and other overhead the amount of actual food that has reached malnourished people has declined 52 percent in the last five years.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office, which studied challenges in food aid efficiencies for a year, found that 65 percent of each food aid dollar is now eaten up by transportation and other business expenses. There are still an estimated 850-million hungry people in the world, only now we send them less food.

There are many reasons for the United States to spend a portion of its food aid budget on buying locally grown products. It can help boost the economy and farmers of a struggling nation. It can bring massive relief to a starving population within weeks rather than months; and the money will go much further when shipping costs are slashed. The argument on the other side - that support for the food aid program would bottom out if it were decoupled from American agricultural and shipping interests - is unconvincing and parochial.

America's generosity shouldn't always have to come with a self-serving catch. An empty stomach doesn't have four months to wait for a ship to come in.