Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Bill Passed by House Could Reduce Impact of U.S. Food Aid

Women carry their ration of food, after fleeing their homes in the village of Abyei, engulfed by heavy fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army. (UN Photo/Tim McKulka)

By Alyssa Casey

This week, the House passed a Coast Guard reauthorization bill, which includes a provision that could drastically reduce the number of hungry people that U.S. food aid can reach. The provision would significantly increase cargo-preference restrictions, rules requiring that a certain percentage of all cargo funded by the United States – including food-aid products – must be transported on American ships with American crews. The reauthorization bill would require 75 percent of all U.S. food aid to be shipped on U.S. vessels. The resulting increase in shipping costs would reduce funding for programs that help support U.S. humanitarian efforts.

Bread for the World’s 2014 Offering of Letters campaign focuses on the need to reform the federal government's food-aid programs so that funds are used more effectively and efficiently. Local and regional purchase (LRP) – the practice of buying food at or near the site of a humanitarian crisis – gives the United States flexibility in responding to crises, enabling us to act more quickly and save more lives, as we witnessed in the post-disaster Philippines earlier this year. The cargo-preference provision, however, would reduce funding for LRP—and food shipped under cargo-preference law from the United States takes an average of 14 weeks longer to reach people in need than local purchase. Buying local food mitigates the effects of disaster on the local economy and helps local farmers and vendors continue to support themselves and their families. LRP also uses tax dollars more efficiently and costs 25 to 50 percent less than food shipped from the United States—and reaches millions more. In short, this harmful provision could result in the United States spending more money on slower, less effective assistance to hungry people rocked by crisis, and the help we do provide has the potential to undercut local farmers and merchants—some of the very people U.S. food aid seeks to help.

Smart food aid is forward thinking. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations World Food Programme (UN WFP) were able to feed more than 72,000 people in Rwanda while supporting Rwandan farmers through local purchase. This drastically reduced costs – saving $243 per metric ton on corn and $899 per metric ton on beans – and allowed food aid to be delivered months sooner than if it had been shipped from the United States.

US Port exports FY03-FY12
Since 2002, the U.S. government has reduced purchase of U.S.-grown food aid from 5 metric tons in 2002, to 1.4 million tons in 2012. At the same time, all major U.S. ports have increased overall tons exported. (Source: USAID)

The cargo-preference restrictions, added shortly before the bill was passed, are based on the argument that food aid hurts exports. However, food aid accounts for only one half of one percent of all U.S. exports. Food shipped from our shores yields about 40 cents for every aid dollar spent. The small loss in export revenue becomes much less urgent in comparison to the millions of lives saved and the long-term consequences of resilience. Building resilience in developing countries often leads to future trading partners. South Korea, once a poverty-wracked recipient of U.S. food aid, is now the United States' sixth-largest goods trading partner.

Local purchase may not be the best option in every scenario. What is important is that the United States has the flexibility to respond to each scenario by choosing the method that reaches hungry people in the shortest amount of time.

Now is the time to raise your voice in support of food-aid reform. The Coast Guard bill goes to the Senate next for consideration. Bread for the World will strongly oppose any final legislation that includes cargo-preference restrictions that decrease funding for flexible food-aid programs. We must continue to let our members of Congress know that we support legislation that saves taxpayer dollars and increases efficiency, not legislation that takes food out of the mouths of the world’s hungry. 

Alyssa Casey is a government relations intern at Bread for the World.


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