The Critical Role of U.S. International Food Aid

Thu, 06/01/2006

Saving Lives, Strengthening Health, Fostering Education and Economic Development

The United States is the largest provider of food aid to poor nations, via the Public Law 480 programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development. U.S. food aid programs have a long history of providing multiple benefits for vulnerable and hungry people worldwide. But recent debates triggered by trade negotiations have raised questions about the structure and funding for these vital programs. The increasing number of food emergencies around the world coupled with a tight budget has also resulted in reduced funding for developmental food aid programs. Examples of these programs include maternal and child health projects, HIV/AIDS education and support programs, agricultural development, and food for education activities – all of which are critical to bolster community resilience to natural disaster and famine. Fragile communities that are vulnerable to crises and people who do not have the means to meet their food needs on a regular basis are the recipients.

2006 – 2007

While the number of hungry people has increased to 852 million, United States donations of food aid have shrunk from a high of almost $9 billion dollars per year in the 1960’s to just over $1.2 billion dollars per year in 2002. Within the Title II food aid program of Public Law 480 the current budget request from the administration does not provide adequate resources to fund both the emergency needs and the ongoing program needs for food for development programs – the very programs that help protect vulnerable communities from eventual famine or malnutrition when natural disaster or civil conflict strike. It is expected that this lack of adequate funding for the Title II program will result in the phase out of 17 countries from the 32 countries now participating in various food for development programs. It will also be very difficult to add new participants, even in areas of high malnutrition and vulnerability, because the budget for development programs is frozen at $335 million, compared to an approved level of $500 million in 2002. Examples of these programs include; community agriculture programs, maternal and child health and nutrition programs, and natural resource conservation and school feeding programs.


U.S. food aid programs operate quite well at the grass roots level. In Tajikistan, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Mozambique as example, U.S. food aid programs enabled communities to produce better crops, improve school feeding programs and school infrastructure, develop new agricultural products for market, and reduced malnutrition, particularly for mothers and children. Significant needs assessments and planning and constant interaction with local communities are hallmarks of these programs. Unfortunately many of the programs are scheduled for closure by 2009 due to the lack of adequate funding expected in fiscal years 2007 onward.

These are programs that serve hungry and malnourished people, respond to emergencies, and provide a bulwark of community stability in hard to reach areas of the developing world. Prematurely ending these programs will have a long-term negative impact on the quality of life in these communities, while continuing these programs enables local and national governments to learn valuable lessons and incorporate them into their country social safety net programming.


The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has evaluated both emergency and food for development programs implemented by CARE, World Vision and the United Nations World Food Program. IFPRI found that food aid plays an important role in efforts to empower communities. For example, food aid in Ethiopia helps communities to plan, manage, and carry out soil and water conservation activities in highly degraded areas by providing incentives for the necessary labor. In Bangladesh, food rations have helped encourage poor families to enroll both boys and girls in school. Female education, in turn, contributes to improvements in children’s education, health, and nutrition, and reduces fertility rates. In Haiti, the use of micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) fortified food aid commodities as weaning foods, along with traditional local foods, has helped improve the nutrition of low-income young children, although enhancing poor households’ access to meat and other animal products is essential if these children are to meet their full nutritional needs on a sustainable basis. Finally, food aid can help break the vicious cycle of HIV/AIDS and food insecurity in Africa, by helping people avoid risky food access strategies and improving the dietary intake of people living with the disease. In order to make food aid effective in reducing risk and mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS, it is essential to look at food aid programs through and “HIV/AIDS lens.”


Four steps that must be taken to improve the effectiveness of international food aid programs are:

First, the funding of P.L. 480 Title II must be increased to the actual amount needed each year for emergencies and development programs. The budget request for fiscal year 2007 only allots $1.2 billion while actual expenditures, including supplementals, are closer to $2 billion. Having the actual amount needed up front will improve program reliability and future planning, which can also achieve cost savings in the long run.

Second, Congress must ensure that a larger amount of Title II funds ($500 million per year) is reserved for the multi-year development programs, rather than diverting these funds for emergencies on an ad hoc basis. The fiscal year 2007 budget request of only $1.2 billion will keep development programs at the low level of $335 million, compared to the $500 million approved level in 2002. As a result, USAID will focus these remaining funds in 15 countries, phasing our programs in 17 other countries. This ends assistance prematurely for millions and limits the ability of the U.S. to start new programs in areas of great need.

Third, Congress must assure flexibility in program options, including allowing monetization in appropriate situations, as well as some appropriate local purchase of commodities for emergency needs under a pilot program.

Fourth, better linkages between the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief with Title II food aid programs.