Hunger is not inevitable. Malnutrition is not a consequence of food scarcity, but a result of
the way economies are organized and of political choices to address—or ignore—the causes
of hunger. In the 21st century, we have the means to defeat hunger: we grow enough food,
we know enough about redistributive economics, we have the political tools to ensure inclusive
decision-making and we can afford to provide the basic needs that protect every person’s entitlement to
an adequate, nutritious diet. It is important to assert this fact, because so many food-related interventions
seem premised on the assumption that hunger is an eternal fact, and therefore charity to assuage its most
pernicious effects will always be necessary. This clouds our thinking. We have the knowledge and the tools
to address the root causes of hunger, if we act strategically and empower communities facing hunger and
countries with food deficits to feed themselves again.
We can increase the likelihood that 10 years from now, we will have reached the Millennium Development
Goal of halving hunger. We can also ensure that 20 years from now, aid agencies will not be feeding yet another
hungry generation. We can foster sound food and development policies to help establish independent
and self-reliant countries and communities where today there is desperate need and dependence.
This paper takes a critical look at food aid, particularly U.S. food aid. We tread carefully: even poorly
designed and badly managed food aid saves lives, at least in the short term. Food aid levels have fallen
dramatically in recent years, while need has increased. It is incumbent on us to be cautious in criticizing the
existing, flawed food aid system because in the current U.S. political climate, it will be easier to cut overseas
aid, in whatever form, than to generate additional resources to meet the urgent needs of the hundreds of
millions who cannot now secure enough food to survive.
Nonetheless, much U.S. food aid, especially non-emergency food aid, is not nearly as effective as it could
be. And some of it, particularly program aid, is simply unacceptable. U.S. in-kind food aid—the transfer of
food grown in the U.S. for distribution or sale abroad that makes up the bulk of U.S. food aid—is a grossly
inefficient resource transfer. Food aid analysts Chris Barrett and Dan Maxwell estimate that it costs more
than two dollars of taxpayer money to generate one dollar of distributed food procured as in-kind food
aid.1 In the name of the poor overseas, very large sums of money are now paid to prop up U.S. shipping
firms and to buy food at higher than market prices from U.S. based food processors and other agribusinesses.
Meanwhile, U.S. private voluntary organizations (PVOs) generate millions of dollars of revenue for
their operating costs and for development aid by selling U.S. commodities in local markets in developing
Fortunately, there are practical ways to improve food aid, including increasing the share of distributed food
that is purchased in or near regions of hunger, and channeling food aid through experienced and reputable
international agencies. Other countries have already shifted their food aid program in this direction, although
most still need to make further reforms.
But the U.S. lobby advocating the status quo is organized and well-entrenched. It will take an equally
strong and clear articulation of the problems in the existing system to bring about the needed changes.
The U.S. must continue to provide generous assistance to fight hunger, including through food aid when
appropriate. But food aid must be freed from the ties to a relatively small number of U.S. interests that
make today’s food aid a domestic boondoggle. It is mistaken to believe food aid helps U.S. farmers. The
U.S. must end self-interested and politicized forms of food aid.
A food aid program that makes a real contribution to development must have a two-fold objective: to
meet emergency needs, preventing deaths today, and to help build sustainable and self-reliant food systems
across the world for tomorrow. The sums of money involved need be no greater, but the results promise to
be far better than those we have now.