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Why there's a storm brewing about global food aid from the U.S.

Workers for Catholic Relief Services in Haiti got a stomach-turning surprise when they swung open the doors of some 20-foot-long shipping containers. Insects had infested thousands of bags of food. None of the sorghum or milled corn and soybeans, donated by the U.S. government, was fit for human consumption.

"I may have cried," says Beth Carroll, the CRS representative who's responsible for managing the Haiti food aid program. In all, she says, about 310 metric tons of food was lost in this 2022 incident.

The culprit seemed obvious. Because of ongoing chaos in Haiti, those containers had been sitting in the country's port for weeks, increasing the risk of spoilage.

Questions raised about U.S. food aid

But Lora Iannotti, a nutrition and public health researcher at the Washington University in St. Louis, saw a deeper cause. Iannotti, who has worked in Haiti for decades, says the episode illustrates persistent problems with U.S. food aid. "It's this facade of doing good," she says, while also serving a less altruistic goal: Putting cash into the pockets of U.S. farmers by buying their grain and shipping it abroad.

Organizations in Haiti had previously questioned the wisdom of shipping U.S.-grown food there. They said the country had limited capacity to store imported grain, and feared the imports would actually discourage local food production. They'd proposed using locally grown food instead, but this isn't allowed under the rules that govern U.S. food aid for "non-emergency" situations, such as in Haiti.

In addition, Iannotti says, the U.S. often sends commodities that American farmers want to sell, not foods that Haitians need most. Cornmeal and sorghum, for instance, hardly constitute a healthy diet. The infested bags of grain sent a message, she says: "We don't really care if people are food secure in Haiti."

Those criticisms lie at the heart of a fresh debate on Capitol Hill over the rules governing America's international food aid programs, which spent roughly $6 billion last year. Congress is about to rewrite some of those rules, as it does every five years when renewing a law called the Farm Bill. It's reviving tensions between international development organizations and U.S. agricultural groups over whether that aid should be purchased from American farmers and shipped abroad.

Coming up with different ways to provide food

Over the past two decades, development experts have persuaded Congress to allow food to be delivered in new, more flexible, ways. The U.S. Agency for International Development has begun buying food in foreign markets, close to where it is needed. It also distributes aid in the form of cash and vouchers, which people can use to buy food in local markets.

These "market-based" pathways can deliver food more quickly and often more cheaply. About 60% of U.S. international food aid is now handled this way. Yet "non-emergency" aid, such as in Haiti, still has to be delivered in the form of commodities that are grown by American farmers. Much of it, by law, also has to be shipped on vessels that are registered in the U.S. and owned by U.S. companies. There's a limited supply of such ships, and a USAID official told Congress last year that this adds about 25% to the cost of shipping.

The Biden Administration, supported by some aid organizations, is now asking Congress to drop some of these restrictions on non-emergency aid.

American farm groups and shipping companies, however, are fighting back, mounting a campaign to "put the food back in food aid," as one of their representatives put it during a meeting at USAID last summer. They are focusing on one major program, called Food for Peace, which is part of the Farm Bill. "Food for Peace has been successful, historically, because it supports and involves U.S. farmers, and has had tremendous political support," says Peter Laudeman, director of trade policy for U.S. Wheat Associates, which represents wheat farmers. "We think this program can and should be working very, very well for U.S. farmers, and here's the way to do that."

A new bill could bring changes

Dozens of groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Wheat Growers, are backing a new bill in Congress called the American Farmers Feed the World Act. The proposal would prevent Food for Peace from using any of its roughly $2 billion budget to buy food abroad or distribute cash and vouchers. The bill also would shift control of some parts of Food for Peace from USAID to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The law would not directly affect a separate, larger, program that USAID currently uses to deliver most of the food aid that's purchased abroad, or distributed in the form of cash or vouchers. But Laudeman also has his eye on that program, called the Emergency Food Security Program. "We see that program buying from major global exporters that compete with U.S. farmers. That's been very, very frustrating to our membership," he says.

The proposal takes aim at a growing category of Food for Peace spending called Section 202(e). It pays for management of the program but has expanded to include nutrition education. Some of it, in Haiti, allows people who receive Food for Peace commodities to buy more nutritious fresh foods as well. "Their objective is to use local ingredients, buying from farmers locally, which is super cool in principle, right?" says Iannotti.

The new bill would cut this spending drastically, limiting Section 202(e) spending to 10% of the Food for Peace budget, instead of 20%. The bill is seen as a legislative gambit in negotiations over the next Farm Bill, which could include similar language when it's renewed, presumably sometime this year.

In a statement to NPR, USAID said that these proposed provisions would "severely limit emergency programs" and reduce the agency's ability to make sure that aid actually reaches the most vulnerable. But in a nod to the political influence of U.S. farm groups, the agency also said that it intends to "keep U.S. commodities at the center of these programs."

Dan Charles is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He was formerly NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.