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Field Focus: Reforming U.S. Food Aid

Not Always the Quantity of Food but the Quality

June 2014

Through its 2014 Offering of Letters, Bread is seeking various reforms in the way the U.S. government carries out its food-aid programs.

Traditionally, U.S. food aid has meant bagged cereals and pulses (such as dried peas and lentils), flour, a blended corn-soy product designed to be mixed with water to make porridge or gruel, or a combination of these. Purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Midwest, it was sent by rail or barge to U.S. ports and then continued its long journey by ship. Finally, food aid arrived in the places where it was needed, where it was distributed through emergency and development programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Since the beginning of the main U.S. food-aid program, Food for Peace, developments in food science and nutrition have taught us a lot about the effectiveness of food-aid commodities. For example, while general distribution food aid, such as that delivered in refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, provides the calories necessary to avert starvation, it is inadequate as a person’s sole source of sustenance for long periods of time. Studies have found that there is a risk of malnutrition because the commodities are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. This is a significant problem because in recent years, more than 96 percent of all food aid recipient countries have received food aid for four or more years.

Also, thanks to scientific advances, new food-aid products have been developed and are increasingly being used in programs to treat both moderate and severe malnutrition. Food-aid products began to be targeted to the specific groups of people for whom they would be most effective. For example, micronutrient-fortified formulations of corn-soy blend and wheat-soy blend were made. Good nutrition is critical to children younger than 2 in their later development.

Other new types of food aid belong to the category of "lipid-based nutritional supplements" (LNS). One of the first therapeutic LNS foods is a peanut-based product called Plumpy'nut.

A study in Niger found that giving Plumpy'nut to children younger than 2 with severe acute malnutrition reduced mortality by about 50 percent–a result heralded as a significant change in the way food aid is used.

Pilot projects have based similar therapeutic foods on locally grown chickpeas, peanuts, cashews, sesame, corn, and soybeans. Using local crops can significantly reduce the cost, which can be a barrier to increasing the use of LNS products in donor-funded programs.

Increased use of specialized products is an integral part of the food-aid reforms in the latest U.S. farm bill. The farm bill instructs USAID to explore ways in which these products can be stockpiled in pre-positioning sites around the world. Pre-positioning can make them immediately available in emergencies. Better targeting of specialized foods to the most vulnerable populations will save lives.

Scott Bleggi is the Senior Foreign Policy Analyst at the Bread for the World Institute.

Photo: A baby is fed ready-to-use therapeutic food provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo courtesy of USAID

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