Eat American: Food Aid Made in the U.S.A.

Charity begins at home.

Illustration by: James Yang

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Eight hundred fifty million people worldwide suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations. Though some starve because of war or natural disasters, many go hungry simply because they cannot afford to buy food. The solution seems straightforward: Give cash to groups on the scene that can purchase and distribute food locally. That’s how the European Union does it.

But not the United States. We give more than half of the world’s nearly $4 billion of annual food aid. Yet by law, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other federal agencies can’t simply write checks to feed the hungry. Instead, they must buy American-grown food from American conglomerates; 75 percent of it must be shipped on American-flagged vessels. It’s a great deal for domestic businesses, but not for the needy: The Government Accountability Office recently found that 65 percent of federal food aid expenditures are not spent on food. In fact, due to rising transportation and business costs, the amount of actual food delivered by U.S. aid programs has declined by more than 50 percent over the past five years.

Now Congress is considering overhauling this system via a Bush administration proposal that would allow 25 percent of food aid to be distributed as cash grants. That move is opposed by shipping companies and agribusiness giants such as Archer Daniels Midland, as you might expect, but also by prominent congressional Democrats and nongovernmental organizations such as Feed the Children and the American Red Cross. Why would these groups be against helping the poor more efficiently? Turns out that when food shipments finally get to where they’re needed, they’re often given to ngos, which turn around and sell them to raise money. In the last three years alone, the groups sold off $500 million of American food aid. (Save the Children has criticized the practice; care has pledged to stop it.)

State Department and Office of Management and Budget staffers have been quietly lobbying to convert some of the aid to cash grants for years, and the White House seems to be listening. But Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—which helps write the rules for international aid programs—says that changing the status quo is “beyond insane” and would cause support for food aid to “vanish overnight.”

However, Congress is due to pass a new farm bill this fall, and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has proposed a tiny pilot program for $100 million in cash grants over four years. “The change is more like plate tectonics than a revolution,” says Gawain Kripke, policy director of Oxfam America. “But everyone sees that what exists now just doesn’t make sense.”


THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.