WA farmers and charities fixing to fight against food aid reform

A discarded can of US food aid in Ethiopia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

President Obama’s food-aid reform proposals sound like a common sense way to feed more of the world’s poor. But from farms, to ports, to global charities, Washington State has a lot riding on the status quo. 

I’ve seen U.S. food aid at work in many of the countries I’ve visited around the world. From Ethiopia to Pakistan, those white sacks with red and blue “USAID: From the American people” stamped across them have meant relief for people experiencing disaster, conflict or extreme poverty.

At a time when American involvement abroad is often resented, and almost always controversial, U.S. food aid should be an easy thing to support right?

Well … it’s complicated.

A growing number of constituents, from international-aid organizations like Oxfam to mega-food companies like Cargill, have thrown their support behind President Obama’s plans to reform the American food-aid system — which has fed an estimated 1 billion people since its founding in 1950s.

The current policy requires that a majority of all U.S. food aid be purchased from farmers in the United States. Reformers say that slows response in times of crisis, increases waste and ensures high prices and inefficient spending.

Obama’s proposed reform would allow for more “regional sourcing.” That means that instead of giving food itself, the U.S. government would essentially give money to countries to buy food in local markets.

Oxfam infographic laying out their proposal for food aid reform.

Oxfam infographic laying out their proposal for food aid reform.

“If you were to take all of U.S. food aid and free it up to source it anywhere you could reach 17 million additional people,” says Jonathon Scanlon, a lead organizer for Oxfam America here in Seattle. “If you care about ending hunger and poverty around the world, this is one way to do it.”

If you think this fight is only happening in the “other Washington” think again. Our state serves as an agricultural provider of international-food aid (wheat for example), and is an important port for food-aid exports.

Washington is also home to a number of powerful international-aid organizations and potentially influential politicians like Sen. Patty Murray, who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee where food-aid reform will be debated as part of the president’s larger budget proposal.

But not everyone here agrees with the president.

Robert Zachritz of World Vision, a Federal Way-based international-aid organization, says they are “supportive of increasing flexibility” in the food-aid system. But World Vision opposes calls from the administration to end a food-aid “monetization” system that allows nonprofits to sell U.S. food aid in foreign markets to help fund international projects.

Food-aid reformers say the practice hurts local agricultural economies in poor countries by flooding their markets with U.S. imports. But World Vision says it helps sustain important development projects abroad.

“The funding mechanism may be imperfect but the programs that they fund are fabulous,” says Zachritz, citing irrigation and maternal-health programs supported through monetization.

East of the mountains, Scott Yates of the Spokane-based Washington Grain Commission says he’s worried that a cash-based food-aid system would be more vulnerable to budget cuts.

Yates says U.S. farmers and maritime industries (that ship U.S.-grown food abroad) act as powerful constituents for food aid. Because they benefit from a commodities-based food-aid system, they fight hard to ensure its continued funding in a political culture where international aid is often on the chopping block.

“Whenever there is a place to cut, food aid is cut,” says Yates whose organization proudly boasts that Washington wheat has been shipped to countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan “And if you have a cash-based system there’s going to be no one arguing for it.”

Seattle Oxfam Action Corps organizers Jena Dixon, left, and Ruby Mixon-Luecke. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Seattle Oxfam Action Corps organizers Jena Dixon, left, and Ruby Mixon-Luecke. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Ruby Mixon-Luecke, 24, a lead organizer for The Seattle Oxfam Action Corps disagrees. She’s got the afternoon off from her job at Eddie Bauer so she could bus downtown to deliver a food-aid reform petition to Congressman Jim McDermott’s office.

She believes her generation — which she argues is more committed to global issues because of social media — will fight for food aid in whatever its form. But more than anything Mixon-Luecke, who grew up poor, is disgusted by inefficiencies inside the current system.

“My mom would budget down to the can of soup,” she says remembering her own childhood. “If my mom could budget efficiently then the U.S. government should be able to budget.”

Millions of hungry people around the world just might agree.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A good summary of some of the players and the challenges to reform. You mention that “Food-aid reformers say the practice hurts local agricultural economies in poor countries by flooding their markets with U.S. imports.” To be a bit less elegant, when we dump American crops on foreign countries, we help run their farmers out of business at a critical time. People will be happy to have their “free food”, and to avoid purchasing what is grown locally, which they would have to pay for. They might have trouble paying for it. But if American aid buys the local food, or food from the region, the food not only arrives much faster, but it is much cheaper. In the words of Jon Scanlon you quote “If you care about ending hunger and poverty this is a way to do it.” And to do it sustainably. By supporting the local farmers, they are more likely to be able to continue growing and providing food locally. If you just provide American food, you risk destroying the local farmers. As for Monetization, while I am sure it is a financial benefit to World Vision and others, I do think that CARE has made the wiser decision, refusing to accept US food to be sold, to raise money, for other programs. Honestly, while I hold World Vision in high regard, I think they are absolutely wrong to enlarge their coffers, at the expense of people starving. That is what they do, when they accept higher priced U.S. food for free from our government, then sell it, so that they can have money for other programs they like. Ask the consumers! The purpose of food aid is to prevent starvation. We should be working to provide nutritious food and supplements to people in need. Currently, one in four children around the world under five are malnourished. They are so malnourished, in fact, that their growth is stunted. Meaning physically they are smaller, and their brains can’t develop normally. 2.5 million of those children die every year. Now ask their parents. Is there a program of World Vision’s they would prefer? Or would they like to keep their kids well nourished? This is a life or death decision for millions, and for those who do continue to live, if they are stunted, it means they are more vulnerable to disease, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease. It means they are unlikely to be able to get a meaningful job. It means their personal income for life will be dramatically altered, as will their country’s GDP. I think World Vision needs to acknowledge these factors and change their view on monetization. And the U.S. needs to do more to support efficient use of its foreign aid money. The Copenhagen Consensus of brilliant economists have examined all the foreign aid programs that we could support, and they have concluded that there is no more efficient program than Nutrition. We know how to do that. Simple things like iodized salt, Vitamin A, and Zinc. Making sure pregnant moms are sufficiently nourished so that breast feeding can be utilized in the first six months of life. On June 8 there will be a Nutrition for Growth conference in London. Hopefully the U.S. will take leadership in this program, which we currently spend just .03% of our foreign aid on. With Nutrition, kids can learn in school, they can look forward to a decent job, they can become financially independent and help their own families. Without it, they are denied a decent chance at life, they become a burden on their parents and their country. We can help prevent that from happening, and help the world itself become a better place. Tell it like it is. Is this program to enrich shipping companies and Big Agriculture in the U.S. at the expense of the lives of children in the poorest nations of the world? Or is its real purpose to save lives and help create sustainable and independent communities?

  2. having travelled in arious countries in Africa, MExico, Haiti, dominican republic and other places – i can tell you that giving money to any of these governments does not make its way to the people. Real live “stuff” rarely does either.
    Changing food aid approaches vs. no aid isn’t the question.
    Aid is needed – but let’s make sure the people actually get the real stuff and/or assistance to start their own farms.

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