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This Thanksgiving, what traditions do we value?

As I look forward to spending time with loved ones during the Thanksgiving holiday and enjoying our favorite family traditions, I can’t help but think about Jodee.

I met Jodee in Jordan. She and her three children are among the four million refugees, more than half of them children, who have fled the violence and instability in Syria. With no way to feed herself or her family, Jodee received a pre-paid voucher card from Save the Children that allowed her to purchase food from local shops and vendors.

{mosads}She described to me why the simple act of walking into a store to buy food was so significant for her and her family.  It made her feel more dignified and less needy, to have the ability to purchase food like everyone else. Then she leaned in and whispered how she also didn’t suffer the disdainful looks from locals that others had experienced when they stood in line for food distributions.

Unfortunately, we are running out of resources to continue this type of life-saving aid that simultaneously helps to restore dignity and hope. This year, the value of the pre-paid cards distributed in Jordan has been cut in half (from $28 to $14 per month) and nearly 230,000 refugees were completely cut off from assistance due to a lack of funds.

Thanksgiving is a time to remember and reach out to those who need our help and support.  With the Syria crisis metastasizing and a catastrophic drought unfolding in the Horn of Africa, where childhood malnutrition is already at emergency levels, we can help by making U.S. food aid more efficient and freeing aid providers to use all the tools in our toolkits so that we can reach more hungry people. 

A bipartisan bill currently before Congress would reform our food aid system, enabling U.S. aid to reach up to 20 percent more people each year without costing the U.S. taxpayer one penny more.  Our current system for delivering food aid, virtually unchanged since 1952, requires that 50 percent of aid be shipped on U.S. flagged vessels.  

These requirements mean that roughly 50 cents of every dollar of U.S. food aid is spent on transport, storage and administrative costs.  It also means that food aid often takes months longer to reach children and families in need – a delay which sometimes can mean the difference between life and death.

The Food for Peace Reform Act, introduced by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) would allow food to be purchased from regions closer to the areas in crisis and shipped in the fastest and most cost-effective way.  These commonsense reforms would stretch our aid dollars to reach up to 9 million more hungry people.

One size does not fit all when it comes to emergency response, and the Food for Peace Reform Act would increase space for innovation to ensure that we can get assistance to the people who need it.  U.S. assistance to Syria has been generous, but frequently we don’t have the right tools for the job at hand.  Much of the country is too unstable to allow for the distribution of enormous bags of food commodities.  Meanwhile, in most of the countries absorbing refugees, food is readily available in local markets. In both cases, vouchers would be more effective. 

U.S. agriculture will always play a role in U.S. food aid, but bags of American food commodities are but one tool among many in the toolbox.  The U.S. government must also be allowed to purchase food in or near the region where assistance is needed, or provide electronic food and cash vouchers like the ones Jodee and her family benefitted from. These both have the added benefit of strengthening local markets and supporting local farmers, building long-term food security to speed the day that U.S. assistance is no longer needed.  

Beyond issues of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, U.S. food aid should also be an instrument of hope for people. Having the ability to shop, cook, and feed your family rather than waiting in long lines for handouts can help to rebuild a sense of stability and normalcy for families that have lost almost everything.  At this special time of year, I think we can all relate to how important that is.   

Miles is president and CEO of Save the Children.

Tags Bob Corker Chris Coons

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