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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

U.S. food aid: Switch to cash

We Americans are accustomed to seeing ourselves generous and, indeed, many among us are extraordinarily generous. What, then, might surprise many is a scandalous lack of generosity in the aid policies of our government.

Consider, for example, the amount of money our government allocates to foreign food aid, a number that used to hover around $2 billion annually but has been falling in recent years -- even as the world suffers natural and social calamities and abject hunger haunts some 850 million people.

In each of the past five years the amount the U.S. government designates to food aid overseas has continued to fall. Further, the Bush administration currently says we can only afford $1.2 billion, the amount it is requesting for fiscal 2008. By comparison, it costs roughly $1.2 billion to support the Iraq war for two days. Two days!

Meanwhile, U.S. farm policy, based on a multibillion-dollar piece of legislation, has become increasingly devastating to farmers in the developing world, even as it makes a few U.S. farms rich and U.S. kids fat. It awaits Senate leaders to force the overhaul the House was unable to manage. (See story)

Moreover, just as our government’s farm policies prop up U.S. agribusiness at the expense of farmers in poorer lands, our food aid program does the same. It goes to purchasing U.S. food commodities -- most of this from a handful of large agribusinesses. The grains and oils are then, by law, shipped overseas in U.S. flagged merchant ships.

A Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year echoed the sentiments of most food aid experts, saying the practice is highly inefficient. The report found that more than half the money allocated to purchase food to be shipped overseas ends up being gobbled up by rising shipping costs.

Europeans and Canadians have mostly left this practice and instead are now sending cash. This practice supports farmers in the developing world by allowing people to purchase food locally or regionally. The U.S. government should quickly follow the Europeans and move to a largely cash-based food aid system.

In a time of food emergency, why ship food halfway around the world, sometimes taking up to six months or more, when food is available locally or regionally?

The answer is that the current outdated U.S. food aid system is frozen in place by powerful agricultural lobbyists and shipping interests. Would most Americans allow this practice to continue if they really understood its consequences?

The U.S. continues to be the world’s No. 1 food donor. However, when U.S. aid is seen as a percentage of U.S. gross national product -- a measure of our economy -- then the U.S. drops to 21st on the list of generous nations, well behind nations such as Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Canada and Greece.

The nongovernmental agencies that are most often the distributors of overseas food aid, including Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest, if not the largest, recognize the backwardness of the U.S. commodity-based food aid system, but fear leaving the current system before there is strong public support for a largely cash-based system.

People of conscience need to urge government officials to fix the Farm Bill and to restore at least the full $2 billion allocated just a few years back. Our policies must be aimed at generously meeting the needs of the world’s hungry people.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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