If you teach a person to fish, she will eat for a lifetime, gaining sovereignty over her food system and food security. If you simply give a person a fish, however, she will eat for just a day. If you give her the US’s fishy leftovers from our subsidized food system, you could destroy the local producers’ livelihoods in her area. The US’s approach to humanitarian food aid in the last half century has stolen business from small-scale farmers and produced putrid piles of grain in markets around the world. While shipping loads of food overseas disadvantages farmers in the recipient countries, sourcing food aid from areas in crisis supports struggling farmers and builds local capacity. President Barack Obama has recently advocated for up to 45 percent of food aid to be sourced locally in the 2014 budget in order to better help the hungry served by our humanitarian aid.
The Administration realizes that sending free US grain to compete with small-scale producers in aid-recipient countries is not a good idea. Neither is shipping US food aid to NGOs in order to have them sell it to fund other development projects. Instead, more cash transfers and locally sourcing aid can empower – rather than compete with – area farmers. Creating robust local markets also decreases the likelihood of countries remaining dependent on international support.
Procuring humanitarian food aid closer to the disaster logically provides a quicker fix to the often impending starvation during crises. In emergency situations, food is urgently needed, and sourcing locally can help people get aid months sooner. It is much easier to sign a check or make an electronic payment than it is to load a US steamer ship full of food and send it halfway across the world. As Andrew Natsios, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development under President George W. Bush, affirmed, “I’ve run these operations, and I know that food aid often gets there after everyone’s dead.”
Even given the injustices in our current system of food aid, agribusiness and maritime lobbies were not pleased to hear of the proposed policy change. Advocates of the current food aid program, Food for Peace, boast of the program’s success in supporting the US economy, given the fact that over 95 percent of food aid is sourced from US farmers. However, sourcing food aid from within the region in need is simply more effective in ensuring that people around the world have their right to food fulfilled. In some aid-recipient countries, buying food locally can cut costs by over 60 percent. The NGO Oxfam America has calculated that these savings could be used to feed an additional 17 million people per year if the US would source grains from countries like Kenya instead of US states such as Kansas. Clearly it is time to adopt a more efficient and effective model of food aid.
However, the legislative branch will need to approve the Administration’s plan to build a better system of food aid. Your input is needed. Please contact your representatives or senators today and ask them to support a smarter approach to food aid that works for food security and food sovereignty, by sourcing food closer to the people in need. Over 17 million people are counting on you. They are tired of spoiled grains and sickly babies and want a more sustainable solution.
Leah Lucas is a junior at Grinnell College who studies an independent major, Poverty and Progress in the Americas, and volunteers as a Change Leader with the NGO, Oxfam America. All views represented here are her own.