Most countries that contribute food aid to people suffering from acute and chronic hunger due to natural or man-made disasters either send cash or purchase food supplies close to the disaster.  The United States, however, requires that food be purchased at home and then shipped overseas on U.S.-flagged ships. This practice, in part, was a response to large American grain surpluses that undercut commodity prices, but that is no longer the case.  As noted by the Government Accountability Office in its own report on this program, U.S. food aid program requirements add considerably to its costs.  Moreover, the process of buying commodities in the U.S. and shipping them around the world can take months.  In most cases, food aid is going to people who are at immediate risk of starvation or serious malnutrition.  The timeliness of food aid may be as important as its magnitude.   But our program is failing to deliver food either fast or in the amount that should be expected given the costs we pay.

The new reports from the Medill School of Journalism suggest that the United States spent more than $9 billion in transportation and logistics costs between 2003 and 2012 to deliver $7.4 billion worth of food. This makes the United States the largest donor of food assistance, but also the most inefficient. The rising cost of transporting aid means that in 2012, we provided food relief for 53 million people, which is less than half of the 123 million provided in 2003, even though funding from year to year has remained steady.  If we were able to use most of that $9 billion to buy food, we could vastly expand the number of people fed by our generosity.

This costly system amounts to a massive corporate subsidy that is undercutting the potency of U.S. food aid efforts and costing many lives.  I have long been an advocate for reform of the program and wrote about this need in a blog earlier this year.  But some interests – namely shipping companies – are fighting any changes and are working to roll back reforms that Congress has already approved. They argue that reforms compromise the U.S. merchant marine fleet.  However, initial findings of a forthcoming George Mason University study suggest a different reality.  These findings estimate that employment in deep sea, coastal, and Great Lakes transportation in 2013 was 50% higher than in 2002 or 2003.  Further, the study is finding that given the small portion that food aid comprises of the U.S. farm sector, shifting to cash or locally purchased food aid would not significantly affect domestic agriculture or our economy.

Few would argue that the United States does not need a merchant marine fleet.  Given national security considerations, it is appropriate for the U.S. government to devote time and resources to policies and plans that ensure we have shipping contingencies covered.  But subordinating our food aid programs that are intended to save starving people to the needs of a domestic industry is the wrong way to go about this.  This policy has huge moral costs and diminishes the foreign policy benefits that would accrue to the United States if we were fulfilling our own potential for delivering food to the most needy.  Now is the time to solidify changes that will save lives.