Sending Cash, Not Corn: A Smarter and Cheaper Approach to Food Aid

Why Local Food Procurement is the more intelligent choice for alleviating hunger.


By Rafael Merchan

Days before celebrating World Food Day on October 16th, the United Nations warned that a combination of low food reserves, severe weather, and escalating conflicts could result in a new hunger crisis affecting millions of families from the developing world. For these families, emergency food aid becomes a lifeline. Without it they will be exposed to famine and forced to leave their land en masse.

Unfortunately, current American food aid programs are expensive, inefficient, and contribute little to long-term development. Traditionally, the US government buys large amounts of cereals, beans and vegetable oil from large American corporations. A mere three firms supply around 40% of the government’s food aid. U.S.-flag shipping companies transport the food, stored in large containers, across the Atlantic, billing the government for 60% of the program’s total cost. The shipments take between three to six months to arrive and, when delivered, they often undercut local prices, affecting farmers who now have to compete against subsidized imports.

It’s difficult for Columbia University students to visualize what a food crisis looks like. After all, we live in a city where food is ubiquitous and cheap. Americans at large only spend about 6% of their income on food. A small increase in the cost of bagels or coffee will not cause an American to go hungry.

Now picture the family of Ahadi Mazao – an imaginary mother of six living in a rural village two hours north of Kisumu in Kenya. Her name means ‘promising crop’ in Swahili. Despite her name, every year Ms. Mazao struggles to feed her family. Though Ms. Mazao spends countless hours hoeing corn, piling yams, and weeding vegetables, her land does not produce enough. Instead, she has to complement her family diet with oil, dairy, eggs, and – on special occasions – meat. Far from Manhattan, Ms. Mazao spends more than half of her income on food.  When the rains don’t come or food prices go up, she is unable to pay school fees or even buy meat for her family.

Like this family, millions of others in poor regions of Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America are exposed to the devastating effects of surges in food prices. With a growing number of hungry people – close to a billion – shrinking government budgets, and an increasing number of natural disasters, we are desperate for a better way to get food to those who need it the most, rather than by merely shipping it across the Atlantic.

A smarter way to deliver food to those in need is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls ‘Local Food Procurement.’ Introduced by the Senate in the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill, local procurement buys food aid inside or nearby the region in crisis. The current Farm Bill – pending a vote from Congress – has $200 million assigned to these projects.  According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), local procurement can save American taxpayers up to 35% of the cost of traditional food aid, by avoiding the exorbitant transportation costs and expediting delivery.

In addition to the low cost, the local demand from ‘local procurement’ programs also strengthens farmers where the food is purchased. If the demand for corn goes up, Ms. Mazao may be more willing to buy fertilizer or invest in hybrid seeds. The extra income from her harvest is spent in the local market, generating a ripple effect that benefits others in her community. As farmers across the region do the same, rural economies become more prosperous and resilient to future crises.

It is bewildering that American food aid programs have not embraced local procurement more widely when there are clear, proven benefits.  The UN’s World Food Program (WFP), European countries, and many international NGOs have been using these programs for many years simply because they are more effective and cheaper. In addition to the GAO report, there are many academic studies and field reports documenting the effectiveness of local procurement over traditional programs. Today, most of the food distributed by the WFP was bought in developing countries.

The 2012 Senate version of the Farm Bill offers an unprecedented opportunity to change the way the U.S. does food aid buy buying food closer to where it is needed. For the sake of American taxpayers, and families like Ahadi Mazao’s, we need to reform food aid. Only then can we address the needs of the hungry and vulnerable, and not allow scarce resources to go to waste.


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Rafael Merchan is a second-year Master of International Affairs candidate at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. He is concentrating in development practice and is interested in food security and nutrition issues. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter at @agdesblog.

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