U.S. Food-Aid Programs: Questions and Answers

In Kenya, the U.S. government is working with families to improve food security and childhood nutrition Photo: Fintrac, Inc.

1. What is U.S. food aid? What does it consist of?

2. What countries are the top recipients of U.S. food aid?

3. How does the U.S. government administer food aid?

4. How is the international community addressing the continuing global food crisis?

5. I understand that sometimes there are emergencies, but why do people in developing countries need U.S. food aid year after year?

6. What is the United States doing to help countries develop long-term food security?

7. Why is now the time to reform U.S. food-aid programs? What are the benefits of reform?

8. How will food aid help farmers in Africa and elsewhere?

9. Won’t buying food in developing countries hurt American farmers and shippers?

10. I've heard various figures for the number of additional people who would benefit from food-aid reform. Why is Bread saying up to 17 million will benefit?


1. What is U.S. food aid? What does it consist of?

The U.S. government's largest food-aid program provides assistance overseas in two basic forms:

  • In-kind donations: Staple food items are distributed to survivors of disasters or used to support economic development in poor countries. Items that are distributed include: flour or cornmeal; rice; peas, beans, and lentils; vegetable oil; powdered milk; and high-protein products made from peanuts. Items appropriate to the diets of the recipients are distributed.
  • Funding: Food from the United States is donated to a poor country and then sold there. The revenue is used to fund projects carried out by private charities or intergovernmental organizations, primarily the World Food Program. The projects support agricultural, economic, or infrastructure development.

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2. What countries are the top recipients of U.S. food aid?

The United States is the world’s largest donor of food aid, supplying 60 percent of the total. Since the United States began its current food-aid programs in 1961, it has helped 3 billion people in 150 countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. government provided almost $2 billion in emergency and development food assistance around the world. In FY 2012:

  • the top recipients of emergency food aid were all in Africa: Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Chad.
  • the top recipients of development food aid were in Africa and Asia: Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and South Sudan.
  • In Latin America (and the Caribbean), the top food-aid recipients were: Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras.

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3. How does the U.S. government administer food aid?

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversee the food-aid programs of the U.S. government. The largest food-aid program is authorized under Public Law 480 and is called Food for Peace (funded at $1.562 billion in FY 2012).

The Food for Peace program, administered by USAID, provides food aid in two major categories:

  • Emergency food aid is immediate, lifesaving assistance and comes in the form of direct, free distribution to people in a famine or to survivors of natural or humancaused disasters.
  • Development assistance provides food aid over the long term to address chronic hunger and to support a poor country’s agricultural, economic, or infrastructure development.

Food aid is also carried out under the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program (funded at $188 million in FY 2012), administered by USDA. "McGovern-Dole" helps support education, child development, and food security for some of the world’s poorest children.

Some current laws cause inefficiencies in the way USAID provides food aid:

  • Most food aid used in Food for Peace must be grown in the United States. This constrains USAID’s ability to use cash transfers and food vouchers in emergencies and to obtain food in or near the country of need, even when these methods are shown to be most cost-effective.
  • Half of all food-aid products must be shipped on American ships. The Government Accountability Office reports that obtaining and shipping food aid can take as long as 6 months and add as much as 60 cents for each dollar spent on food aid.
  • With some food aid, food is donated to a poor country and then sold there. The revenue is used to fund projects carried out by private charities or intergovernmental organizations, primarily the World Food Program. This practice is called "monetization." These organizations get, on average, only 70 cents back per dollar spent on these sales.

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4. How is the international community addressing the continuing global food crisis?

The U.S. government has always been a global leader in responding to food and humanitarian crises. Other bilateral donors, multilateral development banks, and international development organizations are also stepping up to meet the challenge of ending global hunger and malnutrition. President Obama addressed global hunger in his January 2009 inaugural address to the nation, and the administration’s pivotal efforts at the G-8 Summit later that year in L’Aquila, Italy, led to broader international commitments to help reduce hunger.

The United States has shown considerable leadership through its launch, jointly with Ireland, of the 1,000 Days Partnership, which promotes action and investment to improve nutrition for mothers and children during the 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy through her child’s second birthday, when better nutrition can improve the rest of a child’s life and help break the cycle of poverty. In June 2013, the United States pledged $10 billion through fiscal year 2014 toward eliminating malnutrition in the 1,000-day window, and it promised to continue funding nutrition programs at this level beyond 2014.

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5. I understand that sometimes there are emergencies, but why do people in developing countries need U.S. food aid year after year?

Our country's food-aid programs are often the first line of defense against hunger in vulnerable communities, and the United States is often the first country to respond in a crisis. In the past 20 years, USAID’s food-aid and development programs helped reduce the number of the world’s chronically undernourished people by 50 percent. This is a great accomplishment.

Food security is still a major problem worldwide. There are approximately 842 million people around the world who suffer from chronic hunger. USAID’s approaches have improved so that its responses to crises recognize a country’s longer-term development goals, which can be set to build a country's resilience and be sustainable by the country itself after funding ends.

There are political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental causes of food insecurity. Some countries and regions are chronically food-insecure, such as the drought-prone Sahel and Horn regions of Africa. Food aid addresses hunger and malnutrition and often acts as a bridge until a country is able to feed itself.

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6. What is the United States doing to help countries develop long-term food security?

Poverty is multi-dimensional and multifaceted; there is no single or overnight solution. However, major progress has been made toward alleviating poverty in the past decades as U.S. food-aid programs have helped social and economic growth in developing countries.

Food aid and the nourishment it provides can help build a foundation for long-term food security. An example of this is the real-life story from Guatemala included in this Offering of Letters kit. Food aid can be seen as an investment in a country's future. Food-aid programs have shown they can preserve and strengthen livelihoods, creating future stability and economic development. Long-term agricultural development increases resiliency for countries so that when the inevitable next natural or humanitarian disaster hits, they are better prepared to meet their own needs.

Congress and the Obama administration Carol Han/OFDA have proposed reforming U.S. food-aid policy by pushing for a more flexible approach, one that invests in local agriculture, develops selfsufficiency, and feeds more people in less time. Their proposal will not cost additional money and will increase the efficiency of programs.

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7. Why is now the time to reform U.S. food-aid programs? What are the benefits of reform?

Currently in the U.S. food-aid programs, there is a great deal of inefficiency. It is time to update and modernize policies that were put in place in the 1950s and make our government able to respond more flexibly and quickly in a 21st century, globalized world. There is a unique opportunity to make reforms this year that will use funds more efficiently and ultimately feed more hungry people at no additional cost.

Obtaining more food in the country or region where it is needed is, on average, 30 percent cheaper than traditional food aid, and the food can be moved to where it is needed more quickly. For women and children in the 1,000-day window, timely arrival of food aid can mean the difference between a life of health and opportunity and one of stunted growth and limited potential. If the government had more options in its programs, such as being able to use local and regional purchases (LRP), it could target the best possible mix of food products to vulnerable groups.

We also need to improve the nutritional value of food aid that we provide. For example, the main type of U.S. food provided in general distributions (such as in feeding camps in Sudan) provides energy and calories but can fall short in providing essential vitamins and minerals. New types of specialized food-aid products have been developed to address this issue, and reforming food aid will make it easier to provide them where they are needed.

Over the past decade, Congress has allocated between $1.18 billion and $2.32 billion to the Food for Peace program. However, pressures on the federal budget have caused funding to decrease 37 percent from its peak five years ago. When rising transportation costs and higher food prices are factored in, an equivalent amount of funding reaches only half as many hungry people as it did when the Food for Peace program began.

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8. How will food aid help farmers in Africa and elsewhere?

The current practice of selling Americangrown food on the open market in a developing country to fund development projects has been shown to sometimes undermine the livelihoods and productivity of local farmers by depressing prices in the market. Reforms to U.S. food aid, such as increasing the use of local and regional purchases (LRP), cash, and food vouchers, will support local smallholder farmers, who are often women. By relying less on the resale of shipped items (monetization) and purchasing more food through LRP, reforms will support small farmers in the country of need while saving money on shipping and time on delivery.

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9. Won't buying food in developing countries hurt American farmers and shippers?

There will be very little impact to American farmers with reforms to U.S. food aid. U.S. food aid accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. agriculture exports, and in 2011 accounted for only 0.56 percent of net farm income. With reforms, the majority of emergency food aid (55 percent) will continue to be used for the purchase, transport, and related costs of using American commodities for humanitarian assistance.

Impacts on the U.S. shipping industry would be small as well. Food aid is a minimal part of the overall volume of cargo shipped on U.S.- flagged vessels — only 1.5 million metric tons of food from USAID was shipped in FY 2012 out of the 1 billion total metric tons of cargo shipped.

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10. I’ve heard various figures for the number of additional people who would benefit from food-aid reform. Why is Bread saying up to 17 million will benefit?

All figures are estimates based on different assumptions and methods of research and depend on what reforms would be enacted and where they would be implemented. Three notable studies indicate that reforming U.S. food aid could benefit from 2 to 17 million or more people. For our 2014 Offering of Letters, Bread highlights the highest figure because it is a stretch goal for the campaign, and we want as many people as possible to benefit from members’ advocacy. That specific number comes from the joint report of Oxfam American and American Jewish World Service. These two organizations provide an assessment of the proposed changes that is independent of the federal government’s food-aid program estimates and one that is informed by their reputable practices in the field. Links to the three reports are provided below:

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