Geography of US Food Aid: A Steep Road Ahead for Reform

On June 19, the US House of Representatives voted to reject an amendment to the farm bill that would have eliminated restrictions on US food aid, allowing 45% of this funding to be applied to the purchase of food grown locally within “hunger zones.” Congress also voted to reduce the budget for the Food for Peace program by 20 percent in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. After visualizing the voting patterns of US representatives by district and the agricultural donations to lawmakers, it is evident that the path to smarter food aid policies is steep.

The US is responsible for approximately half of food aid funding worldwide, but it is the only major donor that maintains the practice of tying food aid to national producers. Public Law 480was instituted in 1954 to channel food surpluses from the post-war period to developing nations. Renamed the Food for Peace program in 1961, the program’s stated goal was to “increase the consumption of US agricultural commodities in foreign countries, to improve the foreign relations of the US and for other purposes”. Today, US law mandates that food used for aid be produced in the US and shipped to recipient countries via US-owned modes of transportation.

US food aid policies have come under fire from the international development community and elected representatives who argue that food aid supplies should be purchased locally within affected countries. Purchasing food locally supports local agricultural markets and development, eliminates shipping burdens and environmental impacts, and lowers the overall cost of food, which allows for a greater volume to be provided, according to "The Timeliness and Cost-Effectiveness of the Local and Regional Procurement of Food Aid" a study conducted by Cornell University researchers.

Food aid reform proposals face fierce opposition from US agricultural groups and shipping companies arguing that these measures would lower incomes for US farmers and eliminate jobs in the shipping sector. Some NGOs also support the status quo, because it allows “monetization,” a practice in which the supplied food aid can be sold at local markets to generate revenue in order to support other programs. 

Mapping the voting patterns of US representatives by district and the distribution of donations from the agricultural community to US lawmakers, it is possible to visualize the extent of the influence these groups have on US food aid policy. The take away from these two maps is clear – agricultural production and farming interests play a key role in influencing food aid policy to the possible detriment of international food security efforts. 82 out of 157 districts in the top 10 agricultural producing States in the US, in terms of cash receipts, voted against the food aid bill (see below).
Figure 1. US Food Aid Bill Congressional District Voting
States such as Texas, California, and much of the Midwest illustrate the sway agricultural interests may have in Congress. As depicted above, these states have the highest level of agricultural contributions to federal lawmakers per capita and predominantly voting against the bill to reform food aid policies. By comparison, those areas with very low agricultural contributions – Utah, Nevada, and most of the Northeast – are also those most universally in favor of reforming food aid policies.

As demonstrated by the geographic comparisons above, agricultural interest groups are still playing a powerful role in shaping US food aid policy. With the potential to eliminate 7,000-mile shipping routes and drastically decrease costs at stake, the decision to maintain status quo restrictions has broad international implications and undercuts the ability of the US to maximize the impact of its food aid to other countries.
Stephanie Wraith is an AidData Research Assistant and an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary. Supporting maps were created by Sami Al Jamal and Albert Decatur.
Tags: aid effectivenessUnited Statesfood securityUS Congress