Newsweek Examines Challenges Associated With U.S. Food Aid Program

Newsweek examines how the U.S. farm bill influences food aid by tracking the efforts of U.S. entrepreneur Navyn Salem as she worked to launch a nonprofit capable of providing ready-to-use therapeutic (RUTF) food aid known as Plumpy’nut – “a squeezable package of fortified peanut-butter-based paste … used to feed severely malnourished children and pregnant or lactating women” – to NGOs that contract with USAID.

“[W]hile the United States is the largest donor of food aid in the world, spending some $2 billion on it each year, practically none of that money has been allowed to go toward the miracle foods – by law,” the magazine explains. The U.S. farm bill “require[s] that food-aid money be spent on food grown in the U.S., while at least half of it must be packaged in the U.S. and most of it must be transported by U.S. shippers. So while RUTFs are now manufactured on the cheap in dozens of developing countries like Niger, Ethiopia, South Africa, the Dominican Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, right nearby where they eventually need to be distributed, U.S. food aid still comes in the form of imports from afar.”

The program, as Newsweek writes, is “incredibly inefficient: about 65 cents of every dollar that USAID’s Food for Peace, the largest aid program, spends on food aid ends up going to overhead as a result … What makes it practically farcical is the fact that those exports come primarily from the biggest U.S. commodities – wheat, soy, and corn – which don’t have the nutrients needed to treat malnourished kids. RUTFs do.”

The article describes how Salem reconsidered her original plan to open a RUTF factory in Tanzania after realizing any products made there would not be available to NGOs contracting through USAID. Instead, she opened a factory in her home state of Rhode Island, “allowing U.S. funding finally to be spent on the miracle foods.” The result was “Edesia, a nonprofit manufacturer, which split startup costs for the factory with Nutriset [the creators of Plumpy’nut] and recently scored a $2 million contract with USAID,” according to the magazine.

The piece discusses the Obama administration’s “$3.5 billion food-security initiative,” which proposes “more U.S. assistance should be directed toward developing poor countries’ agriculture sectors rather than simply sending U.S.-produced food in emergencies.”

The article concludes with an examination of the politics associated with changing the farm bill. “The fundamental message is that they can only make changes around the margins unless Congress redoes the farm bill,” explained Kim Elliott, who researches agricultural trade policy as a fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Everyone knows the current practices are costly and inefficient, she says, but they’re constrained by an ‘Iron Triangle’ of interests that the farm bill supports: farmers, the shipping industry, and, in some cases, U.S. NGOs – which sometimes receive donations of U.S. food that they can then sell in poor countries to support their projects there. … The next farm bill isn’t up for review until 2012, and while awareness and pressure have increased on food-security issues, the underlying political calculations have not yet changed,” Newsweek writes (Paul, 3/30).

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