How to feed 800 million: The battle over the future of US food aid

PHOTO: Professor Barrett speaking with a group of schoolchildren in Kenya.Christopher Barrett
Professor Barrett speaking with a group of schoolchildren in Kenya.

Cornell economist Chris Barrett sometimes shows audiences a photo he took in 2003 of a mother in Kenya holding her thin child.

“He's so undernourished,” said Barrett, whose field research has spanned sub-Saharan Africa.

Roughly 815 million people around the world suffered from chronic malnourishment last year alone, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The way the U.S. helps the world’s hungry could be impacted by potential changes to provisions in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill, particularly those regarding international food assistance programs.

PHOTO: A Kenyan mother with her sonChristopher Barrett
A Kenyan mother with her son

Food for Peace Title II aid connects farmers, truckers and others in the agricultural industry to programs that ship food to the world’s hungry.

Another effort, the Emergency Food Security Program, helps provide cash-based assistance for food to be bought in the region it will be consumed.

Because the 2014 Farm Bill is set to expire next year, lawmakers could soon debate which type of assistance the U.S. should best provide.

It is a disagreement that has roiled academics, lobbyists and politicians.

Same goal, different methods

The United States is by far the most generous contributor to international food aid. Every year for the past decade, the U.S. gave between two and five times more funding to the U.N.’s World Food Program than the next largest donor.

But American food aid is bound by restrictions that don’t apply to other major donor nations.

For example, at least 50 percent of food aid sent abroad must be delivered by U.S.-flagged vessels, even though they typically cost more than foreign alternatives.

In 2015, the Government Accountability Office found the added expense of this policy, known as cargo preference, was more than $107 million –- that’s three times what the U.S. spent on food assistance to the African nation of Chad in 2017.

Barrett suggests that current maritime restrictions on shipping food aid should be eliminated.

Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, disagrees.

"Well I suspect that the opponents of cargo preference generally believe that if you send cash, it is better, cheaper and provides more support,” said Garamendi, the ranking member of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee. “For the most part, those who advocate that have never spent much time in the chaos of a refugee or a famine camp.”

Hunger is an issue that has shaped his life’s work.

He has worked for decades on the issue, including a stint in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. In the late 1990s, he returned to Ethiopia with his wife, Patti, who then ran food programs across Africa for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

PHOTO: Patti and John Garamendi in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. John Garamendi
Patti and John Garamendi in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps in the early 1960's.

An alternative model

Most countries have turned away from shipping home-grown commodities to afflicted regions, opting instead to provide funds for purchasing food locally.

In October, Barrett testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee that Canada, which did away with a requirement that a percentage of food it donates must be domestically produced in 2008, is now twice as efficient as America at getting food to the needy.

Garamendi fears that replacing U.S. food aid sourced from American farms and delivered by U.S. ships with monetary aid would lead to abuse and undermine the nation’s commitment to feed the hungry.

“A cash program just will not have that support, and will quickly be subject to the inevitable audits, the inevitable questions of where did the cash go? Why did they use it to buy guns?” he said, adding that it wouldn’t be long until American food programs would diminish and possibly disappear.

The 2014 Farm Bill allowed more American food aid to be obtained outside the U.S. It was a change applauded by advocates who say shipping food from the U.S. to a nation in need is not always the most efficient way to feed people.

“What we've seen ... on our program side is usually that it ends up taking longer and costs significantly more," said Mary Olive, a policy adviser for the relief agency CARE, noting that modern e-vouchers used to purchase food locally are hard to abuse in the ways Garamendi suggested.

CARE is lobbying Congress for more flexibility in the 2018 Farm Bill, including the ability to locally source more food and offer an increase in cash-based aid beyond the current cap of 20 percent of total food aid.

But the organization does not want to eliminate the role of U.S. agriculture in global food aid altogether.

"There's always going to be a need for U.S. food in these programs,” Olive said. “We have a lot of pre-positioning sites around the world, which just brings U.S. food closer, so we have less of a wait time.”

She added that some countries, like Yemen, don’t produce enough food to be purchased by aid groups, so it must be brought in from the outside.

PHOTO: Photo taken by Patti Garamendi of a woman carrying 110-pound bag of grain.Patricia Garamendi
Photo taken by Patti Garamendi of a woman carrying 110-pound bag of grain.

High stakes

For Barrett, the debate boils down to a life or death proposition.

Last month, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “the $300 to $400 million wasted on these various restrictions effectively cost us something like 40,000 children’s lives every year.”

Similar to Barrett with his image of the thin child, Garamendi often refers to a photo his wife snapped of a petite woman hauling a 50 kilogram bag of wheat uphill to her family.

Three blue letters are stamped on the bag: U - S - A.

Garamendi believes there is a benefit to food aid requirements that goes uncounted by critics: The bags and containers bearing the stamp of the United States, which sometimes get reused and kept in villages for years, leave behind an abiding sense of goodwill toward our country.

“There is something extraordinarily powerful, and therefore extraordinarily important to America, when that charity, the empathy of America, is expressed in a 50-kilo bag of grain,” he said.

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