American farmers should take pride in reforming food aid

It feels good to be productive. As a Kansas farmer, I like the fact that I help transform air, water and minerals into wheat and meat that can help sustain people. And as an agricultural advocate for Oxfam America, being productive means my work supports sisters and brothers around the world to farm as I do and help feed their neighbors.

That’s why the reforms to food aid are so important to me. The president took a bold step forward earlier this year when he requested wide-ranging changes to our food aid program to make them more efficient and cost-effective. And last month Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced the Food Aid Reform Act, H.R. 1983, which would authorize a long-term fix to our broken food aid program.

The president and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have stepped up where the Agriculture committees have failed to act. I am disappointed that the House Agriculture Committee failed to grab the opportunity of reform as they took up the farm bill. And though the Senate farm bill, which is being debated on the Senate floor, is better, it does not go far enough.

U.S. food aid has saved hundreds of millions of people from malnutrition and starvation at a cost of less than a quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget each year. But despite the best of intentions, American food aid is too often slow in reaching people in need, inefficient and wastes money. With common-sense reforms, up to 17 million more people would receive life-saving assistance — at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

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Current regulations require bulk commodities be purchased from a limited group of preferred agribusiness corporations and shipped on preferred vessels to be distributed to targeted populations. Far too often, these food shipments actually compete with products from local and regional farmers, undermining long-term food security for the very people we aim to help. Sometimes, commodities are sold on foreign markets to raise money that funds critical development programs. Addressing emergency and chronic food insecurity is too important an objective to be funded in such an inefficient manner.

Cutting the red tape would allow humanitarian organizations to have the flexibility to purchase food aid closer to where it’s needed for better prices. Such purchases from local farmers would not only get the food to those in need quicker and more efficiently, it would also help spur economic growth where it is needed most, allowing poor farmers to break their cycle of dependence on outside aid.

Support for changing the status quo should be a no-brainer when more than half of the taxpayer dollars that could be helping to feed people are siphoned away into the pockets of middlemen before one hungry child is fed.

Yes, as a farmer, I like to know that what I do can help people to be fed. But I don’t feel so good when what I do contributes to either depriving someone else from being fed or, even worse in the long run, hurting the ability of communities to feed themselves. Over the decades, U.S. support for helping communities feed themselves has not undercut either our farmers or our national security. Some of the biggest markets for U.S. commodities are in countries that used to be the poorest. While our food aid may have been a Band-Aid for a day, our support of agricultural development and markets helped create stability, more food and new customers for our own goods. That is the pathway to friendship: something we – farmers, policymakers, Americans — can feel proud of for years to come.


French is the lead agriculture organizer for Oxfam America.

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