Global Policy Forum

As US Food Dollars Buy Less,


By Celia W. Dugger

New York Times
October 2, 2007

As escalating food and shipping costs have slashed the amount of food the United States can buy to feed the world's hungry, aid agencies and charitable groups are deeply divided over how best to use what is available. Officials representing more than a dozen aid groups, including Catholic Relief Services and Food for the Hungry, testified Tuesday at a Congressional hearing that Congress should increase the food aid budget and use a larger share of it for long-term antipoverty programs. They told a House appropriations subcommittee that Congress should mandate that one million metric tons of food, instead of the current 750,000 metric tons, go to long-term programs, which could help people facing chronic hunger feed themselves and escape dependency on food aid. The government should be prohibited from raiding the money in this "safe box" to cope with food emergencies, they said. "This is robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Sean Callahan, executive vice president of overseas operations for Catholic Relief Services.

But officials from the United States Agency for International Development and the United Nations World Food Program warned that such a spending mandate would severely reduce the flexibility the United States government needs to quickly deliver sufficient food in emergencies. The safe box that the nonprofit groups are advocating, said James Kunder, acting deputy administrator of Usaid, would more likely become "a pine box for some poor people around the world." And Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, which distributes more American food aid than any other organization, said the mandate could lead to a major reduction in the United States' contribution for emergency aid. It could also diminish the ability of the World Food Program to respond to emergencies, like wars, earthquakes and floods.

Underlying the intensity of this disagreement is the worsening scarcity of food aid. The United States food aid budget has stayed flat in recent years, but it bought 2.4 million metric tons of food in 2007, compared with 5.3 million metric tons in 2000 because of rising logistical and food costs. New data from the Department of Agriculture show that the prices paid for food for the main United States food aid program have risen 35 percent in 2006 and 2007. Ms. Sheeran told the panel that the World Food Program is projecting that what it pays for food will increase 35 percent in the next two years.

The United States' fast eroding ability to use food aid to help tens of millions of the 850 million people worldwide who are hungry has also heightened the debate among charitable groups about reforms in a system that finances many of their projects. These groups not only deliver food aid in emergencies, they also sell about $180 million worth of often highly subsidized American farm goods in poor countries to generate revenues for their long-term antipoverty programs. These sales are known as the "monetization" of food aid.

CARE, which in recent years has sold more food aid than any other group, has broken with the other nonprofit organizations. It opposes the safe box they champion, not only because it would limit Usaid's ability to respond to emergencies, but because it probably would increase the amount of food aid monetized. CARE, which did not testify at the hearing, has decided to largely stop selling food aid in poor countries by 2009 on the grounds that such sales are a highly inefficient way to raise money and can undermine peasants in those countries who are trying to grow and market the same or substitute crops.

This year, as Congress has begun to pay more attention to the debate about reforming food aid, the boom in ethanol made from corn has helped drive up food prices and further eroded such aid. Noting the rising food costs, Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, who led the hearing, repeatedly asked the administration officials who testified why they had not asked for a bigger food aid budget for 2008 — and said that Congress had fully financed what they had requested. The officials replied that there were many competing priorities. "It appears that those requests are just not adequate for the job that needs to get done," she told them.

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
More Information on Lack Lack of Hunger Relief and Other Food Aid Challenges
More Information on World Hunger
More General Analysis on International Aid


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.