Displaced Pakistanis Receive Support from the World Food Program. Photo: UN Photo / Amjad Jamal

For many decades, the United States has been a global leader economically, diplomatically, and militarily. The same is true in the humanitarian arena. For example, when a major international disaster strikes, Americans show their generosity through their donations to their churches and other private charities that respond to the disaster.

Our federal government, on behalf of all Americans, also sends assistance, often in the form of food aid. This aid is also provided in times of longer-term need as a steady means to support economic growth in developing countries. The United States is the world’s largest provider of life-saving food aid, and it has been an important part of the overall effort of the global exodus from hunger.

Now there is an opportunity to reform the federal government's food-aid programs so that funds are used more effectively and efficiently. It is time to update the government's 1950s practices to enable it to respond more flexibly and faster in a 21st century, globalized world. Current laws and policies place requirements on food aid that make its shipment, distribution, and use slow and cumbersome. Changes to the food-aid programs would allow food aid to benefit 17 million more people each year — at no additional cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Food aid often does not provide all of the nutrition that recipients need. Nutrition is especially important in the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child's second birthday. Providing proper nutrition to mothers and children during this period provides a foundation for a better life as children grow. Children who are malnourished early in life suffer from health, educational, social, and economic effects that are life-long and often irreversible. In fact, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, malnutrition can negatively affect a country's gross domestic product by as much as 10 percent.

Tammanna Akter and Her Son in Bangladesh / Photo: Laura Pohl

Improving the nutritional value of food-aid products — provided from the United States or obtained locally — can save additional lives. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners need additional flexibility to target recipients with the best possible food-aid products.

Experts believe that food aid that addresses malnutrition is among the best investments in developmental assistance. Investing in people and their health is also investing in their longer-term well-being. Their educational and economic circumstances are improved, and a country's overall economy and standard of living are improved.

Most U.S. food aid is implemented through the Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Programs. Food-aid funding has decreased over the past several years. At the same time, more people than ever are in need of assistance, especially as the lasting effects of drought are felt in places like Africa.

During today's debates over the federal budget, the U.S. government needs to get as much life-saving aid as possible from limited federal funds.

Bread for the World
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