A Better Way to Give Food Aid

“The treatment for starvation is food.” These words from Dr. Jack Geiger reveal much about the universally-recognized human right to sustenance, and the responsibility of the global community to respond to hunger crises. Let’s talk about food aid, what we as a country are doing, and how we in Milwaukee can contribute.

Since World War II, the United States has been a leader in providing food to hungry regions of the world, contributing more to combating global hunger than any other nation. In 2013, $1.3 billion in food aid was distributed to 46.2 million people in 56 countries. US food aid has saved tens of millions of lives from starvation and malnutrition. The US food aid program is a long and proud tradition that echoes the values of the American people.

The need for effective, timely food aid is greater than ever. 20 million are at risk of starvation today as famine, conflict, displacement, and destruction tear through Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. “We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations,” warns Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s humanitarian chief. Hundreds of millions more are food insecure. Fortunately, there is a simple way for the US Food Aid program to reach millions more hungry people, more quickly, in a more culturally appropriate way, and without spending an extra dime.

The image of cargo ships steaming across the ocean, heavy with the burden of food aid, American flags flapping prominently, is a heroic one. But the reality is a little more problematic. Most major food donor countries do not have such an image to brand their food aid program, because they use direct cash transfer, a much faster, more efficient, local capacity-building method of food aid. The US is the only major food aid donor nation that relies on in-kind donations—actual food, largely grains, purchased at home and shipped abroad. This is extremely inefficient—59% of US Food Aid is spent on agricultural profit, transport, overhead, and regulatory costs.

US in-kind food aid is also agonizingly slow, taking an average of 5-6 months—14 weeks longer than food purchased by direct cash transfer—to reach hungry regions. This delay is critical when health and lives are at stake. Even in emergencies, in-kind food aid often fails to meet the needs of hungry regions.

Challenges continue when in-kind food aid finally does arrive in ports of hungry countries. The arriving food is often not culturally appropriate, as it is typically not selected by recipients but instead selected based on available surpluses. The food is often not consistent with local cuisine, nutritional needs, storage capacity, or even food preparation resources. In-kind food aid can also marginalize vulnerable local economies.

It is also not uncommon for donor food to be diverted to the private economy. This can be problematic for recipient economies because it can overwhelm local markets, depress food prices, cripple livelihoods of small plot farmers, and skew food distribution networks.

Conversely, direct monetary transfer in lieu of direct food donation has the potential to stimulate these local economies, support local farmers, strengthen distribution networks, and set the stage for sustainable recovery of local food-production capacity.

So, what can we do? Let’s get back to the basics when it comes to food aid, and remind ourselves that “The treatment for starvation is food.” Let’s refocus the program on stretching our world-leading food aid generosity to meet as much of the world’s growing hunger burden as we can through more efficient cash transfers for local food purchase. Food aid has historically been a popular bi-partisan issue, and one which Americans have historically taken great pride in supporting. We can’t afford to neglect global needs while lost in domestic politics. Lives are literally at stake. Let’s support the idea of bringing US food aid into the 21st century and educate our legislatures on the best way to do this.


Oxfam America: Saving Money & Lives: The Human Side of U.S. Food Aid Reform

USAID Food Aid Reform: Behind the Numbers

USGAO International Food Assistance: Local & Regional Procurement Can Enhance the Efficiency of US Food Aid, But Challenges May Constrain Its Implementation

The Timeliness & Cost-Effectiveness of the Local & Regional Procurement of Food Aid

“The Food Saved My Life”, Kristoff, NY Times

A Better way to help the world, NY times, Corker

Oxfam Report: food aid or hidden dumping?

Dr. Sanders is a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Department of Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Johnston is a resident at Columbia St. Mary's Family Medicine.

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Milwaukee Global Health Consortium

1020 N. 12th St., 4th Floor

Milwaukee, WI  53233

Phone:  +1-414-219-5488

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