Matthew Leatherman: Getting more bang for U.S. food-aid buck

  • Posted: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 12:15 a.m.
Matthew Leatherman
Matthew Leatherman

This spring the White House proposed reforming the way the United States runs its overseas food aid, and it has led to a legislative turf battle in which some lawmakers are blaming North Carolina and other agricultural states for their own inaction.

On one side are Congress’ agriculture committees, which control this budget and are resisting change on the pretense of representing farmers. On the other are foreign policy committees that stand to gain control and support the administration’s proposal, citing “good government” reasons.


The United States’ biggest channel for food assistance is a 1950s-era effort called Food for Peace. Over each of the past five years, the United States has spent an average of $1.8 billion buying food from American farmers, transporting it on U.S.-flagged ships and delivering it to populations suffering from critical food shortage, natural disaster or civil strife.

Following a positive experiment by President Bush, the Obama administration proposed streamlining this system by buying a greater portion of the food from farmers within the regions to which it would be delivered. U.S. farmers’ involvement would shrink accordingly, though they still would provide part of the supply.

Buying cheaper food with smaller shipping costs would allow the U.S. to feed far more people at the same price — but our farmers and shippers would get less of the deal. The numbers suggest, however, that relatively little is really at stake for agriculture and shipping businesses. This program’s $1.8 billion budget is just half a percent of the $374 billion gross farming output reported in 2011 — and part of that budget is shared with the shipping industry. In that sector, the Pentagon has determined that reform “may affect 8-11 vessels — all non-militarily useful — and roughly 360 to 495 mariners.”

The real issue is that this reform would switch the budgeting prerogative for food aid from agriculture legislators to foreign policy legislators. In a body defined by the power of the purse, Congress’ committees will fight to control every inch of legislative turf.

Both sides issued dueling public statements as this proposal took shape, with Congress’ agriculture leaders stressing the current “economic benefits at home, stimulating our farm and transportation industries” and its foreign policy leaders welcoming adjustments “to reach more people, more quickly, at less cost.” Efficient policymaking has been lost in this jostling of self-interest.

The measured argument favors reform. The benefit of Food for Peace is sustenance for those otherwise at risk of malnutrition or starvation, an objective at the heart of our humanitarian values and our interest in maintaining a leadership role. And its cost — $1.8 billion — is less than a 20th of 1 percent of the total 2014 federal budget plan.

George Ingram, a UNC graduate and co-chair of a nonprofit coalition of reform-minded organizations, tied it all together: “Better policies would maximize efficiencies and save additional lives.”

This doesn’t mean members of Congress looking to justify the status quo can’t do it. A principle of our foreign policy is to assist U.S. industry with opening foreign markets. Using domestically grown food in this aid program falls within that spirit. Some Big Ag interests also have argued that their involvement in Food for Peace sustains a program that otherwise would wither under pressure to spend less on foreign assistance. Polling in early March found that 48 percent of Americans favored decreasing aid to the world’s needy. Dozens of agriculture and shipping groups stepped up at the same time, writing to President Obama that “food aid programs have enjoyed strong bipartisan support for nearly 60 years because they work.”

North Carolina’s Pork Council, Corn Growers Association, Cotton Producers Association and Small Grain Growers Association were among those that opposed the so-far fruitless proposal.

Suggesting that this federal program survives because of the half-percent benefit it offers to the agriculture industry strains belief, though. So, too, does the expectation that regions starved for food will be viable markets for U.S. exports any time soon.

There’s a chance to get more foreign policy bang for the few bucks we spend on food aid. North Carolinians are sure to favor such efficiency, and the agriculture industry may turn out to be more receptive to change than it is credited. Seems those standing most in the way are Congress’ bickering insiders.

Matthew Leatherman is a resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina in Raleigh. This article first appeared in the News & Observer of Raleigh.

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