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Reforming U.S. Food Aid

January 2014

The devastation wrought by major international disasters in recent years, such as last year's typhoon in the Philippines, 2010's massive earthquake in Haiti, and the ongoing crisis in Syria, shows how valuable U.S. food aid is in addressing humanitarian emergencies around the world. These crises also show that, despite the successes of U.S. food aid, reforms are needed to the programs that provide it. Reforming U.S. food aid is the focus of Bread for the World's 2014 Offering of Letters.

Government Help Effective, but Changes Needed

When the needs after disasters are enormous, the response of our federal government is usually immediate. In the case of the Philippines, the U.S. Agency for International Development committed $10 million to the World Food Program to be used to purchase food in the Philippines and neighboring countries. Had the typhoon struck a few months earlier, at the end of the government's previous fiscal year, such emergency funds would have most likely already been spent on other disasters.

Fifty-five tons of nutritious emergency food was rapidly airlifted to the Philippines from the United States. One hundred tons of rice, prepositioned in Sri Lanka just for such an emergency, arrived within a month after the disaster. It would have taken three months if American ships were used to transport rice from the U.S. to the Philippines.

For more than 50 years, U.S. food aid has been an effective response to humanitarian crises caused by conflict, famine, and natural disasters. Food aid has benefitted more than 3 billion hungry and malnourished people in more than 150 countries over those years.

Today, our country is the largest provider of food aid, and we are needed now more than ever. U.S. food aid has played a significant role in preventing hunger and starvation, but we can do better.

Bread is seeking reforms to U.S. food aid in its 2014 Offering of Letters because:

Americans support effective development. Almost 90 percent of Americans believe that improving health for people in developing countries should be one of the top priorities of U.S. foreign assistance, according to a 2012 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Nearly two-thirds of those individuals specifically prioritize reducing hunger and malnutrition. Americans feel strongly that we have a moral and financial responsibility to help end hunger and poverty.

Flexibility saves dollars and lives. The practice of obtaining food close to the source of need, called local and regional purchases (LRP), allows for better-quality food aid that reaches people in need more quickly. Reaching women and children in the 1,000-day window between pregnancy and a child's second birthday with timely food aid is crucial. It's also less expensive — on average, 30 percent cheaper than food aid that is shipped from the United States and other countries, which is the current practice. LRP would promote long-term food security because it supports local farmers' efforts to improve their lives.

A 2008 pilot to implement and study LRP activities in both emergency and non-emergency settings showed savings in both money and time. Using cash and vouchers where appropriate can also increase efficiency in delivering food aid.

Having more options like these will enable specialized food aid products and vitamins and minerals to be adjusted and targeted to the most vulnerable people, giving them better nutrition.

Nutritional quality of food aid is essential. The types of food aid distributed by the United States and other donors do address hunger by providing needed calories but can fall short in addressing nutritional needs. Ensuring good nutrition to vulnerable populations has not been a high priority partly because emergency programs are seen to address immediate food shortages. Good nutrition early in life lays a foundation for health and productivity later in life and decreases people's risk of hunger.

Adequate funding for food assistance and nutrition is crucial. Despite the continued importance of the government's food-aid programs for alleviating hunger, particularly among women and children, funding has been cut significantly over the past several years. The cuts have come about in two main ways. First, pressure to cut overall government spending has led to reductions in funding for food aid. Second, Congress has essentially phased out supplemental appropriations, which in the past included vital resources for emergency food aid following disasters and other crises. Therefore, advocacy for sustaining a robust level of food aid funding is essential.

Economic analysts predict that food prices will continue to be high and volatile. Meanwhile, natural disasters, war zones, and severe drought increase the likelihood of failed harvests and food shortages. To meet this challenge, the United States and other donor countries will need to increase their food aid. Now is a time when advocates can point to new research and knowledge in agriculture and food programs and the importance of funding them.

For further reading, see our background paper Reforming U.S Food Aid: Bread for the World's 2014 Offering of Letters.

Photo: Countries in Africa are consistently among the top recipients of U.S. food aid. Smart reforms to food-aid programs will benefit as many as 17 million more people — and at no additional cost. Stephen Padre/Bread for the World

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