Getting Food Aid Right

How many of us read a story of disaster striking people half a world away and respond by getting out our checkbooks?  Tens of millions of us in any given year, and Americans are especially generous. Relief agencies received more than $1.2 billion in the wake of the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti and $3.9 billion following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  But is anyone foolish enough to go to the local grocery store, buy food and ship it to communities devastated by disaster? Of course not. That would cost much more, take too long to reach people in need, risk spoilage in transit, and likely not provide what is most needed.

Yet with only minor oversimplification, this is precisely what our government’s food aid programs have done since 1954. Our main international food aid programs are authorized through the Farm Bill and must purchase food in, and ship it from, the United States. This system was originally designed to dispose of surpluses the government acquired under farm price support programs that ended decades ago.  These antiquated rules continue today thanks to political inertia in Washington.

As a result, only 40 cents of each taxpayer dollar spent on international food aid actually buys the commodities hungry people eat; the rest goes to shipping and administrative costs. And the median time to deliver emergency food aid is nearly five months. We can do better.

From a longer piece by my friend and frequent coauthor Chris Barrett on CNN’s Global Public Square blog. Chris is also the author with Dan Maxwell of what is without a doubt the best book anyone can read on food aid.