Wasted Food Aid: Why U.S. Aid Dollars Aren’t Going as Far as They Could

By Eleanor Fausold

An article recently published in The Atlantic suggests that U.S. food aid money is not always being spent in the most efficient way possible. U.S. food aid programs can be extremely beneficial to struggling families in Africa, but aid dollars could go even further if they were better dedicated to supporting local supply chains in the regions they serve.  

U.S. food aid programs help small farmers in times of drought. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The article tells the story of 60-year-old Abdoulai Mohamed, a small businessman in Turkana, Kenya who, instead of working on a farm, chose to take out a loan and opened a store selling food staples such as corn and flour.  When drought struck the region in 2011, Mohamed allowed customers to purchase food on credit so they would have enough to eat.  But Mohamed’s business suffered when the drought worsened and many customers were unable to repay their debts, forcing Abdoulai to find a way to keep his shop running without bringing in revenue from customers.

But a program funded, in part, by USAID  helped save Mohamed’s business. The program, which focuses on assisting local businesses and keeping food supply chains intact, helped repay many of the customers’ outstanding balances, allowing families to buy the food they needed. So far, this program has helped 5,500 drought-stricken families and has helped the local economy by preserving supply chains that source food from local farmers, through local businesses, and into needy households.

But in the U.S., the food aid program isn’t running as efficiently as it could be, according to Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.  Offenheiser says that lobbyists representing groups like the shipping industry and major commodity trade groups, including the American Cargo Transport Corporation, the National Corn Growers Association, and USA Rice Federation, lobby for Congress to write food aid rules and regulations that benefit U.S. businesses and industries. These rules require that food used for aid is grown and transported by favored U.S. growers and ships instead of allowing the program to find other lower-cost options, such as purchasing food locally and using cheaper shipping methods, that would allow it to feed more people for the same amount of money. As Offenheiser explains, “the result is that less food gets to hungry people when they need it. Because of these rules up to 32 cents of every $1 spent on food aid goes to waste.”

As Congress debates food aid in the Farm Bill, lawmakers will have the opportunity to make the U.S. food aid program more efficient by allowing it to purchase more locally grown food and use low-cost shipping methods. Such changes could enable the United States to help even more families and individuals and support more efforts like Mohamed’s business in Kenya.

What do you think about the way the United States distributes food aid to other countries?  Comment below!

Eleanor Fausold is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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