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Farm bill to preserve America’s self-serving, costly and unfair food aid system

Somali men carry food aid from a barge to shore.
Somali men carry food aid from a barge to shore.
AP, 2007

The word from the hollowed halls of Congress is that there’s bipartisan agreement on a new five-year Farm Bill that makes some cuts in food stamp payments and farmer subsidies, outraging both special interests in the agriculture industry along with advocates for the American poor.

Almost totally ignored is the fact that the proposed bill also means millions more of the poor overseas will not get American food aid.

CNN Farm bill ends subsidies, cuts food stamps

NY Times Farm bill compromise will change programs, cut spending

Washington Post Vote expected on farm bill next week

Humanosphere has reported extensively (such as here, here and here) on the U.S. government’s uniquely self-serving, incredibly inefficient and arguably immoral approach to delivering food assistance to the poor or those in a disaster overseas. In sum, we are the only nation to require that most of the food we give to the poor and suffering be grown in America and also be shipped and delivered by Americans.

Many humanitarian groups have supported the Obama Administration’s proposal to at least relax those requirements and allow organizations engaged in famine or disaster relief to buy food closer to the crisis area – getting more barley for the buck and also supporting local economies. That push appears to have faded away into oblivion. Shame.

Oxfam America, one of the anti-poverty advocacy organizations that have pushed for these food aid reforms that could feed millions more people every year, tried to put a positive spin on the glass staying half empty.

Some of the changes in the new Farm Bill aimed at improving food aid is to allow $80 million of the food aid (a small fraction of the total) to be purchased locally and modest efforts to reduce the practice of ‘monetization’ – in which non-profit organizations end up dumping food in poor communities in a way that actually hurts local farmers and suppliers.

“The Farm Bill agreement shows that the sun is setting on outdated, wasteful regulations on international food aid programs,” said Eric Munoz, senior policy adviser for Oxfam. Munoz congratulated the legislators “for their leadership in achieving modest first steps to reform international food aid programs that will help more life-saving aid reach hungry people in crisis without costing taxpayers one extra penny.”

Calling these changes ‘modest steps’ in the direction of better serving the poor and needy seems like a gross overstatement.

Passing a five-year piece of legislation that entrenches our nation’s indefensibly self-serving food aid system, which means feeding anywhere from 4 to 10 million fewer people overseas every year, doesn’t sound like a promising sunset.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.