A Response to 'Food Aid for Whom?'

Thank you for your editorial “Food Aid for Whom?” in the June 3-10 issue of America and for your endorsement of two major reforms in the U.S. food aid system. The partial "untying" of some of the food aid purchased in the United States that would allow for the expanded use of local purchase, as well as the elimination of the archaic practice of monetization, should result in better food assistance reaching more hungry people and saving more lives. As you rightly note, many of those who will receive this improved assistance will be victims of man-made and natural disasters. They will also include some of the world’s poorest people, many of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa whose average total consumption (of food and all other items) is about 70 cents a day.

That more of the world’s hungry will be more likely to receive life-giving assistance should matter deeply to those Americans of faith who profess their belief in their Lord who challenged his apostles to give food to the hungry (Luke 9) and who reminds his followers that his living presence is always found within those who hunger (Matthew 25). By encouraging people of faith to support these reforms, America is shining a light on a simple and extremely important way for its readers to help build our Father’s kingdom and to give witness to our Lord who nourishes us both spiritually and physically in the Eucharist.

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Your editorial correctly identifies a systemic problem in the food aid system that is rooted in the excessive influence that various domestic interests have enjoyed since the inception of the Food for Peace program in capturing "market share" of both emergency and development food aid budgets. Thus, the Obama administration’s proposal to authorize the use of as much as 45 percent of food aid budgets for local purchase expenditures, if enacted, will certainly go a long way towards dealing with the market share problem. However, the extent to which the expanded use of local purchases will benefit the truly needy will depend on more than simply the funding flexibility to use up to 45 percent of total food assistance funding for local purchase interventions. Other determining factors will be whether those in need of food are accurately identified, whether their need for food is accurately assessed, and whether local supplies and markets are adequate for local purchase to occur without harming the poor consumers who purchase food in these markets. A morally responsible funding framework that would more directly relate to the needs of the hungry would be to base future annual funding level requests for each of the various food spigots (i.e. local purchase, "in-kind" food aid, cash transfers, food transfers etc.) upon annual analyses that derive estimates of the level of resources required for each of the most important types of assistance. This more "need-based" approach would help to determine whether there is an even greater need for local purchase resources above the proposed 45 percent ceiling.

With regard to monetization, it is also the case that the current practices do not address at all the food needs of those too poor to buy food on local markets, but rather focus inordinately on the purchase preferences of wealthy consumers who are most able to pay healthy prices for U.S. food aid commodities sold in local markets. Bearing this in mind, restrictions designed to eliminate monetization in its current (egregious) form, while a step in the right direction, should not at the same time unwittingly preclude new programmatic approaches that would help to address the food problem faced by those too poor to buy safe, affordable and nutritious food in their local markets. The assistance that is better suited to their need would help them to purchase safe and nutritious food continuously in their local market, rather than to give them a temporary, and far more expensive, handout of food aid or locally purchased food assistance.

The two reforms proposed by the administration are also fully consistent with the need-related focus of the newly enacted Food Assistance Convention to which the United States has legally binding international obligations. The convention fully legitimizes, and strongly supports, members having the flexibility to use in-kind food aid, local purchase, as well as other new forms of food assistance as appropriate for better meeting the various types of food needs that arise. And although the Convention does not contain an outright prohibition on the use of monetization, it clearly states that monetization is only appropriate if it is used to help address directly the food consumption needs of the hungry.

Jesus calls us to feed our neighbor and his followers are tasked with the challenge to do this in the smartest, most compassionate, and most unselfish way that we possibly can. The food aid reforms that America supports are attentive to His voice that cries out in the hungry both at home and abroad.

William Whelan, a former U.S. official who participated in negotiations for the Food Assistance Convention, has served as a Jesuit Volunteer, board member of Jesuit Volunteers International and chairman of the Food Aid Convention.

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