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Politics and the U.S. food aid program

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: Jun 8, 2013 - 12:50:21 PM

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President Dwight Eisenhower created the Food for Peace program in 1954 to send massive amounts of surplus food, produced in the U.S., to the developing world and to countries still recovering from World War II. The program has been politically popular among farmers in the Midwest, shipping companies, dock workers’ unions and food processing plants, as well as representatives in Congress and international humanitarian agencies that use the food in their programs.

Imagine, when a malnourished child in a drought-stricken country receives “a emergency bowl of cornmeal porridge,” chances are “that corn was grown” in the U.S., “packed into bags, shipped across the ocean on U.S. vessels, and distributed in the disaster zone by an American aid group,” noted to the April edition of theAtlantic.com.

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Photo: Stephen Onyu (right), of Uganda, a UN police officer based in Akobo, looks on as trucks full of food are unloaded at a World Food Programme (WFP) warehouse. Photo: UN Photo/Martine Perret
The charity will also make surplus corn available—for a price—to the local market, to assist in funding of additional programs.

What is hardly ever discussed is the precious time lost shipping this much-needed cargo. It takes up to 14 weeks to ship bags of American corn and rice across the ocean; when if the food was grown and purchased locally you could not only remove the expensive cost of shipping, you’d be aiding local farmers.

The only reason the food aid program, all of a sudden, is getting any ink is due to the Obama administration’s proposal to transfer the program from Agriculture Department’s budget to the foreign affairs budget. Under foreign affairs it would be overseen by the Agency for International Development.

Why, one might ask? “Administration officials say the current program is costly and inefficient, and does not get food quickly enough to the people who need it,” according to the May 11 edition of the New York Times.

The cost of transporting food reduces the amount of aid. With rising prices attributed to shipping, food being sent abroad has fallen to 1.8 million cubic tons annually from 5 million cubic tons.

In a study titled “The Timeliness and Cost-Effectiveness of the Local and Regional Procurement of Food Aid,” the authors confirm an obvious assumption, that the “procuring of food locally or distributing cash or vouchers results in a time savings of nearly 14 weeks, a 62 percent gain in timeliness.” Time saving is crucial for countries experiencing substantial food shortages.

In addition, the study indicates that the LRP (Local & Regional Procurement of Food Aid) is not always superior to transoceanic food aid in cost-effectiveness terms. This maybe why 55 percent of food, in the new proposal, would continue to be purchased from American farmers.

According to USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, “This new reform would give us the flexible tools we need to get food to people who need it now, not weeks later … We would still buy from U.S. farmers.” 

He added, “But this way we can help feed two to four million more people without additional costs.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was accused of using the food aid program like a political football.

With the increased power she was able to secure as State Department head, she stripped the USAID administrator of control of the budget, and then centralized it in the State Department, media reports said. With this aid money, according to published reports, she often used “aid money for short term diplomatic purposes, not for humanitarian or development programs.”

Then there is the “wacky” process called “monetization.” This is where aid groups, reported theAtlantic.com, “sell back some of their extra, Uncle-Sam-given food supplies in international markets in order to raise money for non-food-related development programs they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.”

The food aid program under Eisenhower has evolved. No longer taken from America’s food surplus, it is now purchased on the open market in the Midwest.

U.S. food aid programs amount to roughly $1.5 billion annually making America the world’s largest donor of food aid.

Agribusinesses and the shipping lobby, in response to Obama’s changes, want to keep the food aid program the way it is, arguing any additions would eliminate “thousands of jobs in shipping and farming sectors,” according to theAtlantic.com.

Edward A. Brigham, a consultant and former staff member at the White House Office of Management and Budget and the House Budget Committee, said, “This is a classic jurisdictional battle among committees.” Lawmakers, said Brigham, could use their vote to move the money through the appropriations process or just authorize the change in the next farm bill. This falls under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee, which has already voiced opposition to the proposal, according to the New York Times.

Jehron Muhammad, who writes from Philadelphia, can be reached at Jehronn@msn.com.

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