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U.S. Food Aid Critics Call on Congress for Overhaul

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

What's the best way to help address hunger overseas, send food or just send cash? As the Senate debates a new farm bill, that question is being asked by some critics of the food aid program. The U.S. is the world's biggest food donor, spending more than $2 billion a year to ship food to starving people. But grain and fuel prices are soaring. That money is now buying less and less food and feeding fewer hungry mouths.

Here's NPR's Kathleen Schalch.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Congress created the food aid program more than a half century ago in a blaze of post-war optimism, as this promotional film suggests.

(Soundbite of promotional film)

Unidentified Man: As many other countries struggle with problems of scarcity, the strength of the United States lies in my abundance.

SCHALCH: But that abundance was also a problem. The government was saddled with mountains of grain and other commodities that it was buying to help prop up farm prices.

Dr. CHRIS BARRETT (Food Aid Expert, Cornell University): Food aid programs originated in 1954 primarily as a means to dispose of surplus commodities.

SCHALCH: Was it cheaper to get rid of them, to give them away than to store them?

Dr. BARRETT: Absolutely.

SCHALCH: Chris Barrett, a food aid expert at Cornell University, says it's not so cheap anymore. The U.S. no longer buys and stockpiles food. It pays a premium to buy and ship it.

Dr. BARRETT: The costs of freight have just skyrocketed over the last six, seven years.

SCHALCH: More recently, food prices have done the same as many farmers have switched to growing corn to make ethanol. The impact has been dramatic.

Mr. THOMAS MELITO (Director of International Affairs and Trade, Government Accountability Office): We found the amount of commodities that the U.S. shipped overseas had fallen by about half.

SCHALCH: Thomas Melito led a recent Government Accountability Office investigation of the program. He says part of the problem is that the food aid program is wasting a lot of money. It was founded to ship U.S. farm commodities and that's what it does even when there may be better ways to feed the hungry, like teaching farmers in poor countries to grow more food for themselves. The aid groups who do this work need cash, but the U.S. can only send food, says Melito.

Mr. MELITO: So the U.S. government takes its cash and buys U.S. commodities. These commodities are then shipped to a country, say, in Africa somewhere. They are then sold in the local market and turned back into cash. That cash is then used for these development purposes.

SCHALCH: A Byzantine process that can cost twice as much as simply sending money. Even in emergencies, the rules are still the same - all U.S. farm commodities all the time.

James Kunder of the U.S. Agency for International Development says that's true even when people are starving.

Mr. JAMES KUNDER (Acting Deputy Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development): And in the neighboring country, there is extra food available. And all we're asking for is the authority to use up to, up to, 25 percent of the annual appropriation to buy food locally if that is the most efficient way to keep people alive.

SCHALCH: Chris Barrett at Cornell University agrees that this would make all kinds of sense.

Dr. BARRETT: In places where we have to start up programs fresh, it takes, on average, almost five months to get food aid from the United States to a disaster-affected country.

SCHALCH: There are other inefficiencies. Rules that date from the '50s say three-quarters of the food should be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels. But there aren't many of these left, so the government pays a premium. And one more thing, a quarter of the food must be bagged and shipped through a Great Lakes port. But the program is the way it is because a powerful coalition of farmers, shippers and some aid groups like it that way.

Jim Evans is with the USA Dried Pea and Lentil Council. He warned lawmakers recently that tampering with the arrangement could weaken political support. He says farmers have helped keep the program as generous as it is.

Mr. JIM EVANS (Chairman, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, Idaho): That commodity that's in that bag could be mine. And it gives me a great sense of pride as an American farmer, and it gives me a great sense of pride as an American citizen, that label is on that bag.

SCHALCH: Congress may tweak the program a bit to create a small pilot project to experiment with local food purchases. But otherwise, in the massive farm bill that's about to set U.S. policy for yet another five years, the food aid program is likely to stay pretty much the same.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathleen Schalch
Kathleen Schalch is a general assignment reporter on NPR's national desk. Her coverage can be heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.