Taking Action to Change US Food Aid: February goodTALK

By: Katherine and Emily
Katherine and Emily are both Program Fellows at Allowance for Good and students at Northwestern University. Read their bios here.

On February 12th, we braved the cold to attend a goodTALK with Josh Meyer, a Lecturer at National Security Studies at Medill’s Washington program, where he teaches graduate level journalism classes on covering conflicts, terrorism and national security. At this event, Meyer discussed the investigation into the US food aid effort that he led with a group of graduate students in the Medill School of Journalism. In a report titled, Hunger Pains: A Problem-plagued US Food Aid Program Faces an Uncertain Future, his team explored the inefficiencies and pitfalls of the program.We joined Northwestern students, staff and other interested members of the public around a table to hear Meyer speak in an intimate setting. Meyer kept everyone engaged throughout the 90 minute presentation with a powerpoint full of potent and dismaying statistics about the US Food Aid program, a long Q&A portion, and even a clip from the Daily Show. After hearing his talk, we at AfG have been moved to act in order to improve this ineffective system.

Josh Meyer chooses to focus his research not on sensationalized current events, but global systemic issues that have repercussions now and for future generations. One large-scale issue that Meyer believes will only become worse with the future challenges presented by climate change is food insecurity. By narrowing in on US food aid, Meyer’s team investigated a subject that the US public can directly impact and hold their government accountable for. As the leading global power, the US has the resources to help people throughout the world who are in need, and in the past century it has been central to US foreign policy, and the American identity, to do so. This ideology has persisted into the 21st century; military action, aid and various disaster relief efforts have all been presented as sacrifices made by the US to protect human rights abroad. But what happens when these aid efforts are wasteful and unproductive?

U.S. food aid has been quoted by experts to be the most inefficient humanitarian aid program in the world. Interviews with U.S. officials and recipients of aid on three continents revealed that USAID, the agency in charge of the food aid effort, actively seeks to serve American economic interests over the interests of those in need. Congressional mandates force USAID to use American commodities sent on American ships through an extensive logistic transportation bureaucracy. As a result, food often arrives months too late, and spoiled from the overseas journey. Former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios claims that, “people have died waiting for food to arrive,” because of this long and slow process. 

Regardless of these problems, USAID remains the largest aid effort in the world. But the U.S. can do better. Despite criticism from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and frustrated USAID workers fighting for reform, policy changes have not been made, due to vested interests in Congress. So what can we, as attentive and committed global citizens, do to help? One way could be encouraging our representatives in Congress to support reform efforts. The United Nations World Food Programme has already begun using food vouchers in place of food ration boxes in places like Jordan for the Syrian refugees there. These vouchers give the refugees the ability to choose where they shop, what they buy, and how much– restoring their sense of dignity and normalcy. If the U.S. adopted this approach to aid, the money would be going directly into the pockets of the recipients, rather than being wasted on transportation or food they don’t necessarily want. We can spur our local and state leaders to fight for this change– a change that will ensure effective aid for all of those in need.

If you would like to take action, sign the petitions at the links below, or share Josh Meyer’s piece with your friends! Advocacy and action begins with awareness.


Meyer’s Piece:

Support organizations that fight for food aid reform: