The Truth About Food Aid

By Tony Munoz 2013-10-25 11:39:00

Much has been written lately about the Obama Administration’s proposal to reform food aid and turn it into a cash voucher system. Instead of purchasing food from American farmers and transporting it on U.S.-flagged ships in bags clearly labeled “From the People of the United States,” the Administration would issue checks to third-party NGOs for the purchase and distribution of food locally.

Last week, for example, Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane stated in “Lessons in refining food aid from ‘Captain Phillips’” that the program is filled with cronyism and simply protects the interests of American farmers and shipping companies at the expense of taxpayers and the world’s hungry. Sadly, Lane’s – and the Administration’s – argument to reform food aid and remove American farmers and shippers from the equation falls far short of the mark.

Established by President Eisenhower in 1954 under the Agricultural Trade Development Act (P.L. 480), the program has worked remarkably well for nearly 60 years, feeding more than three billion people in 150 countries and responding to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. When President Kennedy renamed it Food for Peace in 1961, he stated that “Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping hand to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want.” 

In terms of funding, Food for Peace represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal budget – a drop in the bucket. Yet that drop has produced an ocean of goodwill around the world. In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of another government program that has paid such huge dividends in terms of saving lives and promoting America’s interests abroad – and at such low cost – as Food for Peace.

Let’s look at the facts. Since taking office in 2009 the Obama Administration has defunded P.L. 480 by $1 billion a year. Today its budget is $1.4 billion, of which 45 percent is already dispersed in a cash-voucher system. American farmers and flag lines participate in $770 million of the appropriations, and U.S. shipping companies earn about $95 million for transporting tons of food worldwide to the hungry.

That $95 million helps support a U.S. deepwater merchant fleet that is slowly dying yet is essential to the nation’s national security, transporting military materiel and troops in time of war. The U.S. merchant marine currently has only 95 ships and 12,000 deepwater mariners. These ships participate in the Maritime Security Program, which provides the Defense Department with access to billions of dollars in floating assets when needed. General William Fraser III, head of the U.S. Transportation Command, calls the U.S. Merchant Marine the “fourth arm of defense” and considers it of “critical importance to the Defense Department.”

Lane further claims that “Captain Phillips” is a morality tale about the “wasteful folly of U.S. food-aid policy.” It is nothing of the kind. It is a morality tale about piracy and the dangers facing seafarers of all nationalities – not just Americans – who transit certain pirate-infested waters in furtherance of international trade and the global economy. To draw conclusions about food aid policy because the Maersk Alabama happened to be carrying bags labeled “From the People of the United States” is itself pure folly. And for the record, no American-flagged ship has been attacked by pirates since.

Lane further states that USAID, if not saddled with the “buy-American rule” for food, could purchase it from the “cheapest, most convenient source – possibly in Africa.” This is the height of disingenuousness. While the African subcontinent has a diverse ecosystem, only about ten percent can be used for agriculture. There’s a reason millions of people are starving in Africa – there’s not enough food. It’s not like you can go down to the local Safeway and purchase the goods right there and distribute them to the needy.

The world’s population currently stands at seven billion, and more than one billion are starving. Most of the countries receiving food aid cannot grow enough food to feed their hungry. If you cannot purchase the food locally, you have to purchase it on the world market. It then has to be transported to where it is needed. We are back to square one. 

Lane’s position on the monetization of food aid is completely accurate. But he blames U.S. special interests instead of the NGOs selling the food to brokers and pocketing the cash for projects deemed more important than feeding the hungry. Yet this is exactly what will happen if we go to an all-cash system. Cash tends to disappear and, if it does, the hungry will remain that way. There will be even more corruption, more opportunity for waste, fraud and abuse in a program that has for sixty years worked remarkably well. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That may be a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: It’s mainly true.  

Tony Munoz is the Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive. He has 30 years of experience in the maritime industry, which includes working for West Coast steamship lines and PR consulting for some of the industry largest companies.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.