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United States wastes billions of dollars to ship food aid

Liberian Red Cross distributes food provided by USAID to Monrovia's West Point neighborhood. Photo: Liberian Red Cross

The United States spent more money to ship, handle and store food aid than on the actual food. A total of $17.9 billion was spent on food aid between 2003 and 2012 by the United States. Of that total, $9.2 billion was spent on just getting the food to the people in need. A comprehensive investigation by USA Today and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism confirms what has long been said about U.S. food aid — it is inefficient and in need of reform.

“[The $9 billion wasted] makes it by far the most inefficient and expensive food assistance delivery system in the world, and one that delays or deprives sustenance to potentially millions of people who desperately need it — and in some cases, die without it, according to interviews with dozens of U.S. officials and experts, and a review of decades worth of government studies and documents,” write Ajai Sreevatsan and Robert Andersson in the opening piece.

A set of antiquated rules, maintained by the US Congress, mean that less food gets to the people who need it most, and often too late. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, it takes an average of 69 days for food aid to go out for delivery. Then it takes another 51 days to reach people in need. A process, taking an average of four months to deliver what can be lifesaving assistance, is too slow when there is a an emergency.

USAID food aid wasted moneyThe problem is well known by USAID itself. However, Food for Peace, the food aid program founded in 1954 to help U.S. farmers and foreign policy interests at the same time, requires American-made, shipped and handled food aid. Even when it is cheaper and faster to get food elsewhere, USAID is required to go through domestic suppliers.

“South Sudan and the Central African Republic are just the latest examples of the acute humanitarian need that exists around the world today. From Syria to Sudan to Ethiopia, from Yemen to the Democratic Republic of Congo to parts of the Sahel in West Africa, we are working swiftly to reach hungry people and saves lives. But as conflicts continue and the world sees more recurrent and dramatic weather events, we will need to meet ever-increasing demands on our emergency food accounts with flexibility and speed,” said USAID Administrator Raj Shah in a statement accompanying White House-proposed reforms.

The agency website has a section describing the need to reform the U.S. food aid system, President Obama’s proposals and why it is important. Two major proposals were made by the Obama administration: 1) Allow as much as 25 percent of emergency food aid to be spent locally or using alternatives, such as food vouchers and cash transfers; 2) All but eliminate monetization, the practice of selling U.S. food so organizations can fund their development work.

While the White House and USAID oppose the status quo, Congress continues to shun reforms. The shipping lobby is small and powerful. It successfully argues that cutting down on shipments from the United States will harm jobs. Members of Congress find the case compelling enough to reiterate and justify opposition to reform.

“There’s another piece of this and that is in America; it’s about American jobs and it’s about the distribution of that American food, first grown by American farmers all over this nation, whether it’s rice from California or wheat or corn from the Midwest. It’s also about the transportation system and the jobs that go with it,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif, to Medill/USA Today.


Opposition also comes from within the charitable sector. Monetization is a way that non-government organizations can make money to help fund their work. It is a controversial practice that NGOs such as Oxfam and CARE ceased doing years ago. To protect the practice of monetization, a lobby group called the Alliance for Global Food Security was formed to slow down the progress of reform. Its member organizations include World Vision, Food for the Hungry and ACDI/VOCA.

Fixing the problem is stalled because of what the report calls the “Iron Triangle” of special interests formed by the shippers, food producers and NGOs/government contractors. The Iron Triangle successfully fended off two attempts in the past 15 months by the Obama administration to enact food aid reforms. The group has successfully defended their interests for more than 10 years, but growing pressure may erode their influence.

The United States stands alone with its out-of-date food aid rules. Other countries, NGOs and the United Nations are using more innovative and cost-effective solutions to providing food assistance. In my next piece, I will report on promising evidence on cash transfers for refugees and in non-emergency situations.

Meanwhile, read the full Medill/USA Today investigation here.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]