In the United States, the "breadbasket of the world," most of us take food for granted.
Yet people in many areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America still rely on subsistence farming for much of their food, making them subject to the vagaries of rainfall. I saw this in the 1980s in southern Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. One year, late rains meant a poor maize crop; another year, torrential rains washed away roads and seedlings.
And then there are acute emergencies across the globe earthquakes, floods, war.
That is where U.S. food aid comes in. From famine relief for Europe after World Wars I and II to Public Law 480 of 1954, which launched our current program of sending surplus food around the globe, Americans have led efforts to reduce hunger.
But it is time to get beyond the view that if people are hungry, we should just send food. U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia and is now the ranking member on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, told me that the focus of food aid should be to "empower countries to help themselves."
We also need to modernize delivery. It takes an average of 130 days for U.S. food aid to reach its destination, more than four months.
Michael Carter, an economist at the University of California, Davis, told me that during that long wait, "people do desperate things." They eat less. They sell whatever assets they have to buy food. Worse, when U.S. food finally does arrive, it disrupts local farmers and markets trying to recover. This, he says, generates a downward spiral, making people more vulnerable in bad years.
Why does it take so long to get food aid where it is needed? Outdated rules require U.S. food aid to be grown in the United States and shipped by U.S.-flagged vessels even if they are foreign-owned.
This also affects how the United States works with nonprofits. The government buys food here, ships it overseas on U.S.-flagged vessels and donates it to nonprofits that resell it to finance their programs. The U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2011 called this "inherently inefficient."
Other countries have a more flexible tool kit. If food is available locally or in nearby countries, they buy it and get it to the emergency area within 35 to 41 days, on average. This also has the benefit of promoting local agriculture. Transoceanic shipping of food, while sometimes necessary is a last resort.
As Farr points out, U.S. food aid "is the most expensive food in the world by the time it reaches the site." The GAO points to an example where it cost $3.9 million to buy wheat to send to Malawi in 2008, but cost $4.5 million in shipping.
Why does the United States do it this way? An "iron triangle" of interests benefits a few shipping companies (and the powerful Seafarers International Union), food processors and nonprofits that rely on resales of food. The charge of "food-aid dependency" applies more to these groups than to countries that receive food.
But the political landscape is changing. I spoke with Eric Munoz, a senior policy director with Oxfam America. "We've moved from having no debate in Congress, with the status quo prevailing, to having for the first time a real conversation and a vote on this issue," he told me on an iffy phone connection from Ghana.
The California House delegation is leading the way. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has teamed up with Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, the ranking member of the Africa subcommittee, to offer an amendment to the farm bill. It came close to passing, failing on a 203-220 vote.
Bass told me this is about the maritime industry and that supporters of reform just need a little more time to come up with a compromise. Big food processors, such as Cargill, are open to change. Many nonprofits that used to take U.S. food to sell such as CARE are on board.
Thus, Munoz says the "trajectory is generally positive" to end restrictions that require U.S.-grown food, shipping on U.S.-flagged vessels and food donations to nonprofits for resale. This would allow the United States to reach more hungry people without increasing the food aid budget. "You get cost savings," said Munoz, "that can be put back into the program."
The old emphasis in development circles of getting people out of agriculture and into industrial enterprises also is changing, as seen in President Barack Obama's remarks during his recent trip to Africa. "Compared to other sectors," he said, "growth in agriculture is far more effective in reducing poverty, including among women."
A twin-track approach rapid response in food emergencies combined with steps to help small-scale farmers improve productivity and be more resilient when they have a bad harvest offers more promise than just shipping U.S. food handouts.
FOOD AID BY THE NUMBERS
Number of people worldwide who do not get enough to eat: 868 million more than one person in eight.
GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD AID
After World War I and World War II: primarily to Europe
1960s-1970s: primarily to Asia
1970s-1990s: primarily to Africa
1990s: primarily to states of the former Soviet Union
2000s: primarily to Asia, Africa
PRIMARY SOURCE OF FOOD AID
United States: 56% of world total, 2010
U.S. AGRICULTURE EXPORTS
$137 billion in 2012
$143 billion in 2013 (projected)
U.S. food aid budget: $1 billion to $2 billion
Countries where more than 30% of residents are undernourished:
North Korea 32.0%
Sources: U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization; U.S. Department of Agriculture