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Washington Independent Examines U.S. Food Aid

The Washington Independent examines a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which found that a federal law requiring most international food aid to come from U.S. farmers could be “hobbling efforts to feed the world’s hungry.” Currently, Food for Peace – the nation’s largest food aid program – “requires that the crops be purchased from U.S. growers, processed through U.S. companies, and shipped using U.S.-flagged vessels,” according to the article.

According to the GAO report, “International aid programs that purchased food close to those in need not only spent much less, in many cases, but also delivered the assistance much faster than comparable programs like that of the U.S., where the food was shipped from abroad.” The report recommends that “the White House take a closer look at whether local-purchase programs can create efficiencies without harming local markets or sacrificing quality and nutrition,” Washington Independent reports.

The report adds evidence to the position of relief groups that believe Washington should reorganize its multi-billion dollar food aid program to “allow for greater in-cash contributions, which grant aid organizations more power to tackle emergencies than the mandatory in-kind program currently in place,” according to the Washington Independent. Kimberly Elliot, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said, “The way the U.S. does in-kind food aid is particularly costly and inefficient.” A shift to cash aid in Washington could have dramatic effects on the WFP, spokeswoman Jennifer Parmalee said, as about 40 percent of WFP’s budget comes from the U.S.

Increased use of local farming, “isn’t without its pitfalls,” writes the Washington Independent. “Relief groups and federal officials alike are quick to warn that dumping cash aid on local markets can spike food prices, making those commodities suddenly inaccessible to other residents. Officials are also warning that they simply don’t have much data about what the longer-term effects of cash aid are.”

The article indicates that “relief groups aren’t holding their breath for any changes to the Food for Peace program,” and are instead hoping that “President Obama will make good on vows, made earlier this year, to double funding for foreign agriculture assistance through other programs in an effort to alleviate rising global hunger.”

Previous proposals to buy food closer to those in need, including by former President George W. Bush, have gone “exactly nowhere in Congress.” And according to the Washington Independent, a number of lawmakers “have suggested that moving Food for Peace toward a cash-aid system would erode congressional support for the program altogether, threatening its very existence” (Lillis, Washington Independent, 6/5).